If there is one bird that can reveal what Americans are, it is the bald eagle, as Jack Davis shows us in The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird. In this 417-page book, Davis takes us back to the very beginning of human-eagle interactions in the human refuse middens along the Columbia River thousands of years ago. Those Americans ate bald eagles, scarring their bones in ways archaeologists could identify. We know much more about how more recent Americans interacted with bald eagles.
Native Americans incorporated bald eagles into their dances and used their feathers to adorn themselves and for religious ceremonies. The settlers turned to the bald eagle for the seal to represent their new country and painted it in numerous natural histories of the New World. But the new Americans also brought death in more varied and destructive ways than Native Americans.
There are three main themes to this book. First, people revered eagles and used them and their images to define their group, be it native or settler. Second, people killed bald eagles by the thousands, nearly wiping out this magnificent bird, a job that DDT practically completed. The third theme is redemption and shows the efforts some people are making to rescue our emblematic bird.
The first chapter, Searching for a Seal, was one of my favorites because of the way it showed the development of something that seems so timeless, the seal of the United States, the seal that is on every podium, every official banner, and every dollar bill. Now it seems almost inevitable, but there were several other contenders that might have prevailed. Our great seal shows a bald eagle looking left holding in its bill a ribbon that says E Pluribus Unum, from many one. But you know the rest of the image or can easily pull it out of your wallet.
It would be natural to think that these bald eagles descended from ancestors that watched as canoes and pirogues gave way to flatboats and then steamboats, birds that witnessed the loss of our riverine forests into the fiery maws of steam engines. But that is not the case, because humans killed all the nesting Missouri eagles.
Bald eagles are a bird like no other. They have a pure white head and tail, a dark brown body, lemon-yellow hooked bill and a clear yellow eye that makes them look stern. Adult Bald Eagles have a wingspan over six feet, making them unmistakable and impressive as they soar and swoop for fish, in the water or in the talons of another bird, or fly up to their massive eyries to feed their young.
In the St. Louis area, I see bald eagles all year round as they fish along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their backwaters. I can almost count on seeing them in the trees across the water at the Audubon Center at Riverlands on the edge of Alton Slough, just off the Mississippi River. The darker head and tail of an immature eagle might fool you, as it fooled early naturalists. Watch for a while. A bird might take off right in front of you, soaring over the water. I have seen juveniles hopelessly chase mallards, never catching them. Bald eagles are fun.
It would be natural to think that these bald eagles descended from ancestors that watched as canoes and pirogues gave way to flatboats and then steamboats, birds that witnessed the loss of our riverine forests into the fiery maws of steam engines. But that is not the case, because humans killed all the nesting Missouri eagles. In the great bald eagle death, Mississippi lacked nesting eagles by the 1950s, and Alabama lacked them by 1962. The last nesting bald eagle in Massachusetts bred in 1907. By 1978 bald eagles were endangered in forty-three states and threatened in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, and Oregon. Indeed, the only reason we currently have bald eagles in most places in the lower forty-eight states is because people put them there in a process called hacking.
According to Davis, hacking requires that eaglets are placed in a high nest and fed fish by gloves designed to look like adult eagle heads from behind a screen. The hackers can see the eaglets through one-way glass. First attempted in Massachusetts in 1982 using techniques long known to falconers, hacking was a success and eaglets Betsy and Ross successfully fledged from the hacking tower and Ross was found nesting years later in Massachusetts. Since then the technique has resulted in the reintroduction all across America. For example, eaglets were hacked in Missouri in 1986 at Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in the southeast and at Schell Osage Wildlife area in the southwest of the state1.
This successful reintroduction is a feel-good story that I wanted to share before I talked about the hardest chapters of this book, chapters that make for painful reading.
Many of us know about DDT and its breakdown product DDE that thins bird eggs. Predatory birds like bald eagles ended up with concentrated levels of DDT which resulted in ever thinner eggshells. (270) Successful breeding for the few remaining bald eagles in the lower forty-eight states became nearly impossible. Davis clearly describes the efforts to rid us of this terrible pesticide, steps that were necessary before any others could result in eagle success.
DDT alone might have wiped out bald eagles in the United States outside of Alaska, where it was not much used. But it did not work alone. Instead, DDT caused nesting failures of an extremely diminished population.
Bald eagle numbers were low because people killed them. Artists and naturalists like John James Audubon and his predecessors John Brickell, William Bartram, Mark Catesby, and Alexander Wilson killed an average of five birds for each painting, Davis estimated. This was because any individual bird would have damage from the shot in one place or another. But that was nothing. Seemingly everyone killed bald eagles.
In Alaska a bounty of fifty cents, later raised to one dollar, was put on eagles, resulting in over 80,000 bald eagles killed by 1940. In 1940 Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, but exempted Alaska. Davis compares the violence against bald eagles to that against American bison and passenger pigeons. He worked hard to put numbers to the frequency of bald eagle shooting which was hard to do since it was ubiquitous. Davis did a search of Newspapers.com for the years 1850 to 1920 with the phrase “bald eagle shot” and turned up 183,959 matches. He was dismayed both at this massive slaughter and that people today seem to be unaware of it. Another frustration is how inaccurate people’s impression of bald eagle prey was. They did not take large mammals, though they may take lambs. They did not take cattle or children. They generally did not impact human livelihoods.
Artists and naturalists like John James Audubon and his predecessors John Brickell, William Bartram, Mark Catesby, and Alexander Wilson killed an average of five birds for each painting, Davis estimated. This was because any individual bird would have damage from the shot in one place or another. But that was nothing. Seemingly everyone killed bald eagles.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife once sided with ranchers and put out poison baits for coyotes without worrying about the known side effect of killing bald eagles that also fed on the poison bait. Others took to planes to shoot down eagles. Others worked for ranchers, each killing hundreds of eagles.
Native Americans also killed bald eagles. For example, the Hopi smothered eaglets for their feathers. Davis documents it all in chapters that are painful to read.
Davis then covers the growing movement to protect eagles, from John Burroughs to Rosalie Edge, a member of the Audubon Society who disagreed with the organization’s acquiescence to eagle killing in Alaska. The slow success of this movement only came as bald eagle numbers dropped precipitously.
Telling the story of bald eagles in America is like telling the environmental history of our nation. Davis tells it well, skimping on no details. No, Ben Franklin did not espouse replacing the bald eagle with the wild turkey. No, the bald eagle is not the national bird. We do not have one. And he shares many more careful details that enliven this magnificent environmental history of our country.
Is there anything that might have improved this book? Yes, I have both a quibble and something important. The quibble is that the book is not well organized, particularly the first half. Stories are begun and dropped and then picked up again as if he had notes on cards that spilled and were picked up in a somewhat random order.
We need to know what has happened, something Davis explains expertly. But to understand why it happened, we need to understand how it is that Americans did not value the lives of bald eagles until they were nearly gone.
More seriously, Davis does not focus enough on the problem with what might be called the soul of the nation. From the very beginning, these lands have been populated by people who view animals, in this case the bald eagle, as something less than themselves, something they can kill for sport, pleasure, or religion. For example, Davis describes the glee of a hunter who has killed one of a pair as he watches the anguished mate. And now bald eagles have come back from the brink, people want to hunt them again. How could they?
The generality of this problem was recently brought to the forefront of my attention by famous environmentalist Herbert A. Raffaele, who gave a plenary address at the 2022 meeting of the American Ornithological Society held in Puerto Rico. In that talk, Raffaele argued that it is not preserved lands, numbers of people, or cash for conservation that matters. He said it is people’s attitudes towards nature and towards our place in nature that matter. We need to know what has happened, something Davis explains expertly. But to understand why it happened, we need to understand how it is that Americans did not value the lives of bald eagles until they were nearly gone. Only with this understanding can we hope to change this might and avoid future catastrophes.