Discover the Bald Eagle's Role in American Heritage

A Symbol of Liberty and Freedom

Bald eagle
Bald eagle (Photo: Getty Images).

No other animal symbolizes America more than the bald eagle. Why is the bald eagle our national bird?

For centuries, the bald eagle was a spiritual symbol for the native people that lived in the United States. And in 1782, it was nominated as the national emblem of the United States. It has been a symbol of freedom and American patriotism ever since. 

Here are a few facts about the bald eagle and its role in American heritage.

The bald eagle is not really bald. If you've ever since the bald eagle flying overhead, you would recognize it instantly thanks to its gleaming white head that stands out in stark contrast to its chocolate brown wings and body. The head may appear bald, but it's actually covered in white feathers. The name itself is actually derived from an older name and meaning of "white-headed."

Our national bird almost went extinct. In the late 20th century, the population of bald eagles in the United States diminished rapidly due to a pesticide that affected the bird's reproduction functionality. The bald eagle was placed on the U.S. Endangered Species List and major efforts were undertaken to save the bird from extinction. Fortunately, the population recovered and the bald eagle was delisted from endangered to threatened in 1995. In 2007, the bald eagle was removed altogether from the U.S. list of Endangered and Threatened Species.

It's the only sea eagle native to North America. The bald eagle's range spans from Mexico to most of Canada and it includes all of the continental U.S. states. It can be found in all kinds of habitats from the bayous of Louisiana to the deserts of California to the deciduous forests of New England. It is the only sea eagle that is endemic -- or native -- to North America.

They're fast - but they are not the fastest. Bald eagles can fly at speeds of 35 to 45 miles per hour (mph) making them some of the fastest fliers in the world. But they are not the quickest. That distinction is held by the peregrine falcon, which is not only the fastest bird in the world, it is the fastest animal on the planet. when peregrines are hunting, they can dive vertically at speeds over 112 mph. Peregrines have been recording diving as fast as 242 mph. Their maximum horizontal flight speed is between 65 and 68 mph. 

Bald eagles eat fish -- and anything and everything else. Fish make up the majority of the bald eagles' diet. The birds have also been known to eat other water birds such as grebes, herons, ducks, coots, geese, and egrets, as well as mammals such as rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, muskrats, and even deer fawns. Turtles, terrapins, snakes, and crabs as make for tasty bald eagle snacks as well. Bald eagles have also been known to steal prey from other predators (a practice known as kleptoparasitism), to scavenge carcasses of other animals, and to steal food from landfills or campsites. In other words, if a bald eagle can grab it in its talons, it will eat it.

Benjamin Franklin was not a bald eagle fan. Legend holds that Franklin opposed the move to make the bald eagle that symbol of the United States. Some even claim that Franklin nominated the wild turkey for the honor instead, although there is no evidence to support that claim. But Franklin did write a letter to his daughter in 1784 from Paris, criticizing the decision to make the bald eagle the new country's national symbol:

"For my own part. I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly ... besides he is a rank coward: The little king bird not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district."