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Bald Eagles Are as American as Apple Pie

Barbecues, bright fireworks and bald eagles. That pretty much sums up the Fourth of July! Bald eagles might be one of the most famous symbols of the United States, but how did that happen?

A bald eagle perched atop a tree snag.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

During the American Revolutionary War almost 250 years ago, the Founding Fathers wanted a symbol that represented the brand-new country. The new United States mascot needed to share characteristics of what it was representing. But what about the bald eagle makes it the perfect mascot? We imagine the Founding Fathers chose the bald eagle for two reasons: its appearance and because it is native to the United States.


Their unique look


With its bald head and tail, yellow feet and beak and magnificent wingspan, the bald eagle stands out from the flock!


Did you know that their name is a reference to their white heads? Languages and word meanings can change over time. “Balde” used to be another word for white colored. Today, “bald” means no hair or feathers. So, 250 years ago, the name bald eagle made a little more sense.

A juvenile bald eagle with brown and white patches of feathers.
A juvenile bald eagle with brown and white patches of feathers. (Photo courtesy of Joe Viola)

Either way, bald eagles are not born with an entirely bald head. For the first four to five years of life, these eagles are mostly brown with varying white patches.

They are a native bird


Although you can find these birds in parts of Canada and northern Mexico, bald eagles live in 49 of 50 states, all except Hawaii. No matter what part of the country they are in, bald eagles like their homes next to large bodies of water. Here in Will County, you have a good chance of spotting some along a river.


Eagles and America: Many similarities

A person wearing a woodchuck mascot costume in a forest.
Willy the Woodchuck, the Forest Preserve mascot. (Photo by Chad Merda)

Mascots share connections with their teams, organizations and governments. Our own Willy the Woodchuck helps educate the public about the environment, just like the Forest Preserve District of Willy County that he represents. Joliet is known for its big prison, so J.L. Bird wears prison stripes for the Joliet Slammers baseball team. Since the beginning of our country, similarities between the U.S. and its animal mascot continue to grow. Let’s take a look.


They’re big

A bald eagle and eaglets in their nest.
A bald eagle and eaglets in their nest. (Photo via Shutterstock)

In the U.S., we like big things — big houses, big cars, big mountains, big cities, big burgers and big birds. The bald eagle measures 28 inches to 40 inches long, with a wingspan of about 6 feet to 8 feet wide!


Speaking of big homes, the bald eagle makes the largest nest of any North American bird. These nests must be sizable to fit a family of large birds, but they also grow. Year after year, bald eagles will return to the same nest and add to it before raising that year’s eaglets.


The largest nest ever recorded was 13 feet deep and 8.2 feet wide and weighed 2,000 pounds. That would make a nice human swimming pool!


Bald eagles eat the entire menu

A bald eagle perched atop a pole with a fish in its talons.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

Americans like to eat all sorts of foods, and bald eagles do too! Fish are the bald eagle’s favorite food and make up most of their diet. That might not seem like much, but about 200 species of fish are on the menu for these hungry birds! When fish are unavailable, bald eagles will eat waterfowl, small mammals, sea urchins, clams, crabs and carrion (dead animals).


They even steal the food that other birds have caught, sometimes mid-flight. That’s why one Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, thought the bald eagle had “bad moral character.”

They’re resilient


When the Founding Fathers originally chose this bird in 1782, its U.S. population was between 25,000-75,000 birds. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, bald eagles were victims of illegal hunting, habitat destruction and poisoning from lead and pesticides. By 1963, their population was reduced to just 834 eagles!

 

Words to know

Characteristic: A feature typical of a person, place or thing.

Pesticide: A substance to destroy insects or other organisms.

Raptor: A bird of prey, such as an eagle, falcon, hawk or owl.

 

In 1978, bald eagles were listed as endangered. Throughout the rest of the century, various laws were passed to protect these raptors. And on Aug. 9, 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially removed the bald eagle from the endangered species list!


Do you think the Founding Fathers chose the right bird to be the animal mascot for the United States? What would you choose?

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