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The bald eagle: A brief history of the great conservation success story of America’s bird

The bald eagle — one of America’s strongest emblems — was once a desperate and dying breed.

This is because the bird of the American spirit wasn’t always held in such high regard.

At the National Book Festival run by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 3, 2022, author Jack E. Davis sat down with Fox News Digital to detail the bald eagle’s “great American conservation success story.”

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This brief history, outlined in his new book “The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird,” begins with an anything-but-emblematic impression of the bird from years ago. 

The bald eagle has had “brushes with extinction” twice within the lower 48 states, Davis said, the first occurring in the late 19th century.

“It was then that Americans were shooting bald eagles left and right,” he said. 

Or, as he also put it, “A bald eagle seen was a bald eagle to be shot.”

The environmental history expert explained that the bird had been regarded as a predator, like wolves or bears, and considered a threat to American farmers and their livestock.

But these perceptions tended to be exaggerations, he said.

“There were myths that existed for well over a century that bald eagles would kidnap babies,” said Davis. 

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“Mothers were warned: Don’t leave your infant unattended outside, unless you want a bald eagle to take it away to its nest.”

This myth, according to Davis, continued well into the 1960s.

Throughout the early 20th century, thousands of bald eagles were shot down.

It wasn’t until 1940, the year Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, that things began to change for the bird. 

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The act provided legal protection for the bald eagle. 

“Here we had denied the bird of freedom its own freedom,” said Davis.

“And Congress and other Americans recognized that if we had let the bald eagle go extinct, it would’ve undermined the integrity of the Great Seal of the United States.”

Only five years later, the bird confronted its second run-in with near extinction when DDT — an environmentally harmful insecticide — was introduced at the end of World War II.

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“Nobody had any idea what kind of destruction DDT would do to wildlife,” he said.

In 1963, the bald eagle hit its lowest numbers — totaling less than 500 nesting pairs across the U.S.

Nearly a decade later, in 1972, U.S. Fish and Wildlife strengthened the penalty under the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which Davis emphasized was a “watershed” for species protection.

Congress also added the bald eagle to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and passed the Clean Water Act with “strong bipartisan support.”

“At that time, nearly one-third of the nation’s water was safe for swimming and fishing,” he said. 

“That was eagle habitat, but that was also our habitat.”

“We stepped up.”

Davis mentioned that these protective measures triggered Fish and Wildlife to launch “hugely successful” eagle restoration projects across the country.

The bald eagle was placed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, but the population was slowly restored thanks to these “popular” restoration efforts.

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By 2007, the bald eagle was de-listed as the species regained its health, reaching nearly 11,000 nesting pairs nationwide.

In the 2010s, the bald eagle population quadrupled, Davis added, while today’s numbers are equivalent to the estimated population that existed when Europeans first settled in North America.

“Today, the population is somewhere around 500,000,” he said.

“We redeemed ourselves.”

For those looking to assist in the ongoing comeback of the bald eagle, Davis said almost every state has a raptor rehabilitation center that accepts donations and welcomes visitors and volunteers.

He also mentioned how most state Audubon societies are “always looking” for volunteers to monitor eagles’ nests. 

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