Bird of Freedom

Is the bald eagle, the American symbol of freedom, on its way to extinction? Until very recently the great bird was being systematically wiped out of the skies above Alaska, and even now its southern refuge is disappearing. EDWIN WAY TEALE, the naturalist, author of NORTH WITH THE SPRING and AUTUMN ACROSS AMERICA,reminds us of a responsibility which should not be faced only by the Audubon Society.

SINCE a late-June day in Philadelphia, just a century and three quarters ago this year, the bald eagle has been America’s most celebrated bird. On that day, June 20, 1782, the Continental Congress selected it as the emblem of the nation. Its image since then has appeared on United States currency, has formed the central figure of the Great Seal, has been part of every treaty and important document of state. During most of these 175 years, however, the bird itself has been warred upon and pushed along the road toward extirpation. In all the forty-eight states of the Union today probably fewer than a thousand pairs of these great birds are still alive. Revered in image and persecuted in life — that has been the paradoxical story of the American eagle.

Yet no other native bird, in repose or in the air, approaches it as a symbol of dignity and power and freedom. Clinging to some lofty perch, it habitually sits erect, its white head of impressive size held high, its yellow eyes surveying with that piercing, concentrated gaze peculiar to its kind the scene spread out below. In every line it imparts an impression of majesty, of unflinching independence. And this is the eagle quiescent.

It is the eagle active, soaring in a wide, windy sky on a day of brilliant sunshine, that becomes transcendently the symbol of our freedom. Many years have passed since the day, but I remember vividly one such bird as it mounted above my canoe floating on a forest lake in the Adirondacks. With wings outspread, riding the updrafts in effortless ascent, white head and tail gleaming in the sun, it left the earth, the lake, the forest, the mountains behind. My paddle forgotten‚ I watched it recede into the shining sky of that August day. It shrank to sparrow size, this bird with a wingspan of nearly seven feet. As long as I could see it, it turned endlessly in spirals and graceful curves, writing its poetry of motion on a blue page of the sky.

Above all other birds it is the soaring eagle, with its size and weight, that gives the most abiding impression of power and purpose in the air. It advances solidly like a great ship cleaving the swells and thrusting aside the smaller waves. It sails directly where lesser birds are rocked and tilted by the air currents. A number of times on the lichen-splotched rocks of Hawk Mountain, in Pennsylvania, I have held soaring eagles in my glasses as they rode by. Sometimes they were level with my eyes, sometimes above, sometimes below. But always in passing they presented the same appearance of stability, of superiority to small disturbances, of moving ahead calmly poised in an unstable element.

And so the eagle has moved across the sky above many events in our history. It no doubt circled over Ponce de León when he roamed Florida searching for the Fountain of Youth. It no doubt met Henry Hudson when he sailed into the river that bears his name. It looked down on the Jamestown colonists and knew the rock-bound New England shore where the Mayflower came to anchor. It saw Bunker Hill and Fort Ticonderoga. It watched the pioneers roll west. It flew at Kitty Hawk before the Wright Brothers. And it was patrolling the Potomac when Washington became the nation’s capital.

Unlike the golden eagle, a cosmopolitan that embraces virtually the full circle of the Northern Hemisphere, the bald eagle is almost exclusively the bird of a single continent. On that long-ago June day when, unknown to itself, it became the country’s emblem, the American eagle inhabited all but the more arid interior portions of the land. The decades since have marked a long retreat. The eagle trees, with their immense nests of sticks, that were landmarks of a former time are now, in numerous regions, but lading memories in the minds of older inhabitants. Two far-removed places, Alaska and Florida, today hold the bulk of the bald eagle population. The former is a reservoir of the northern subspecies, the latter of the southern subspecies.

On the Fourth of July, in 1831, a crowd gathered in what is now Cortland, New York, to witness a novel event. The local silversmith, an ardent admirer of Henry Clay, had engraved on a metal clasp a greeting to his hero. This he attached to the leg of an American eagle. Shouts and musket fire started the bird in the general direction of Clay’s Kentucky. Seven days later and 725 miles to the west, on a high bluff on the far bank of the Mississippi near Dubuque, Iowa, an Indian’s bullet brought it down. The week’s wandering of this pioneer banded bird supplied the earliest precise information on the wideranging character of an eagle’s flight.

KNOWLEDGE of the life and ways of our national bird has been curiously slow in evolving. It was ninety years after the flight of the Cortland eagle, 140 after the action of the Continental Congress, before any serious scrutiny was made of the dayto-day home life of the bald eagle. In the 1920s, Francis H. Herrick, a professor at Western Reserve University, began recording in notes and photographs the activity at nests on the Lake Erie shore, near Vermilion, Ohio. He worked hidden in blinds at the top of towers erected beside the eyries. One of these structures, anchored in concrete and containing four tons of steel, ascended to a height of ninety-six feet. The temperature within the khaki blind rose as high as 104 degrees and once, in a sudden storm, lightning struck a neighboring oak. Out of years of carefully amassed notes Herrick produced The American Eagle. Published in 1934, this book contributed greatly to a better understanding of the habits and character and ecology of the “bird of freedom.”

During more recent years a Canadian, a retired Winnipeg banker, Charles L. Broley, has been advancing this knowledge still further. In retirement Broley turned to the strenuous hobby of climbing trees and banding Florida eagles. At seventy-eight he is still ascending lofty pines and pulling himself among the upper branches of hundred-foot cypresses. In January, 1939, he banded his first eaglet. Since then the number has risen to more than 1200, with 150 banded in a single year, 1946.

Far out on the Kissimmee Prairie, north of Lake Okeechobee, I once accompanied this remarkable man on one of his banding expeditions. He was then nearly seventy, keen of eye, athletic and agile, arranging his rope ladders and working his way nearly eighty feet up the trunk of a longdead pine and over the stick ramparts of the nest to reach the eaglet on top. Some of the trees he ascends are half eaten through by fire. Others are so old they go down in the next storm. Several times in the back country Broley has been mistaken for a revenue officer, and on one occasion he nearly lost his automobile in a grass fire set to drive him off. When he began banding he was arrested as a suspicious character three times in one month. One day on the Gulf coast, among dry palmettos, he stepped back to look up at a nest and trod squarely on a coiled diamondback, his heel, providentially, pinning its head to the ground.

As the life of an eagle is long — some estimates place its longevity at as much as a hundred years — the fruits of Broley’s activity may continue to be harvested for decades to come. Hardly had this ex-banker taken up his hobby before it yielded an important and wholly unknown fact about Florida eagles. One of the first birds he banded was killed, a few weeks after it left the nest, at Columbiaville, New York, 1100 miles to the north. Later returns from Maine, from the Maritime Provinces, even from 200 miles above Broley’s old home, Winnipeg, Canada, have confirmed the fact that Florida eagles wander far to the north, perhaps even into the Arctic, during summer months.

In the latter days of August and the early part of September each year, scores of bald eagles pass Hawk Mountain, moving south. Other migrating birds are leaving their nesting areas behind. But the eagles are heading home. In Florida they nest mainly in winter, from mid-November into April. The northern eagles, able to endure privation and cold, do not migrate; they merely shift slightly southward in times of special hardship. Around the Great Lakes nesting usually begins in March.

To MOST birds a nest is a comparatively flimsy, temporary affair, used but a few weeks and abandoned forever. But American eagles, mated for life, use the same nest year after year. It is the center of their existence. Few creatures evidence so great an attraction for home. During wartime years one pair stubbornly clung to its nesting tree even though it stood in the middle of a practice bombing range. The Great Eyrie, near Vermilion, Ohio, was occupied for thirty-six years without a break. In southern Georgia I was once told of an eagle tree on an island that had formed a landmark for three generations of natives in following the water trails that led into the heart of the Okefenokee Swamp.

On rare occasions eagles have made their nests on the ground, on cliffs, even in the haymow of an abandoned barn. But normally they choose the top of a lofty tree, adding material each year, so the mass increases as the tree grows old. Herrick estimated that the Great Eyrie weighed about two tons when it crashed to the ground in a March storm in 1925. It was twelve feet high and eight and a half wide. An even larger nest, without doubt the largest eagle nest in America, fills a treetop near St. Petersburg, Florida. This mass of sticks has been accumulating for forty years. It rises for twenty feet, ending in a flattened top nine and a half feet across.

It is at the time when the nests are repaired, the time of courtship and mating, that the aerial prowess of the American eagle comes into full display. Not content with picking sticks from the ground, it often hurls itself, with outstretched talons, against dry branches, snapping them from the trees. At other times it hovers above a treetop, closes its wings, plummets down, and lets its weight and momentum break off the dead limb.

For the watching earth-bound man, however, the supreme thrill of these days is provided by the aerobatics of courtship — twisting climbs, inverted flight, thunderbolt dives with half-closed wings. At its climax the great birds grasp talons and plunge through space, turning over and over like a wheel in the sky as they fall. Two of my friends have witnessed this event. Their luck is associated in my mind with the confession of Izaak Walton: “I envy not him that cats better meat than I do, nor him that is richer, or wears better clothes than I do. I envy no body but him and him only, that catches more fish than I do.” As Walton felt about the more fortunate anglers, so I have felt about these more fortunate friends of mine.

Before the eggs are laid — usually two, sometimes one, rarely three — the eagles cover the sticks of the nest with a deep mattress of dry grass‚ and dead vegetation. In harvesting this material they fly low, raking their talons across open fields. On rare occasions they utilize some source of supply already gathered together. In one instance an eagle flew off with a small haycock, in another with half of a muskrat house clutched in its talons. The males have a propensity for bringing home whatever oddity strikes their fancy. In Florida nests Broley has found electric light bulbs, clothespins, old shoes, gunny sacks, a family photograph in a heavy frame, wax candles, air plants, magazines, and pieces of bright-colored cloth.

A songbird’s brood is fledged and gone in a few weeks, but the eagle spends more than a third of a year raising its young. For five weeks the two birds take turns incubating the eggs. As parents they are among the most solicitous in the world, tearing food into bites of just the right size for the growing eaglets, sheltering them from the sun with outspread wings, crouching low over them in storms, shielding them with their bodies from rain and hail. When smoke from a palmetto fire billowed up around an eagle tree Broley once heard the mother bird keep up a continuous murmur as though reassuring her eaglet. Another occasion when these impressive, austere-looking birds revealed an almost human quality was when a pair returned to their Florida nest-tree after a summer in the north. They came back in the evening and a man living close by heard them “talking all night long” as though excited and delighted to be home again.

For the eaglet the flat top of the nest is a practice flying field. Here it waves its wings for minutes at a time, strengthening their muscles. Here it flaps a foot or two into the air. As its twelfth week approaches, and the white fuzz of its earliest days has been replaced through several juvenal molts with dark brown feathers, it lifts itself repeatedly several feet above the nest and hovers there like a helicopter. The time of its first flight is near at hand. This usually begins when one of the parents, a fish in its talons, swings close, screams, then veers away. In its hunger the young bird starts in pursuit and finds itself suddenly launched into full flight. So well have wing-waving and nest-hopping conditioned its muscles that this initial aerial journey may continue for a mile or more. When only a few days out of the nest it is able to mount to a great height in the sky.

At this time the young bald eagle is completely brown, resembling the golden eagle except for its lower legs, which are bare instead of feathered. Three years pass before the fledgling reaches maturity and attains the white head and tail, the yellow bill and legs and eyes, of the adult. The head of a bald eagle is fully feathered, not bare. In its name the word “bald” is used with the older meaning of “white.” Paradoxically, on the day the young bird leaves the nest it is larger than either parent. The contraction of bones and more strenuous exercise account for the later reduction. But during its first months of flight it may exceed its parents by as much as a pound in weight and a foot in wingspan. It is this fact that is believed to have deceived John James Audubon into describing what is now known to have been an immature northern bald eagle as a new species, his longmystifying “Bird of Washington.”

YEARS ago I stood beside a cage at the Bronx Zoo and rashly tried to outstare an eagle. Its yellow eyes, with their untamable depths, never wavered. In the end that gaze, so fiercely concentrated, produced a curious illusion, the impression that there was weight and substance and penetration in its glance. Soaring in the sky, a bald eagle has been observed to detect, and head directly for, a fish floating on the surface of a lake three miles away. Its keenness of vision is one of its most important aids to hunting.

Ever since the earliest accounts of American natural history, the robbing of the osprey has been featured in every recital of the hunting habits of the bald eagle. The twisting attack, the dropping of the fish, the plunge of the eagle to snatch it from the air before it strikes the water — these have been told innumerable times. They have tended to obscure the fact that the American eagle is resourcefully varied in its own hunting for food. In plunging after a swimming fish it sometimes submerges entirely. An eagle can, although it rarely does, alight upon the water, ride the surface like a gull, then take off again with no great difficulty. Audubon tells of seeing an eagle wading in a shallow stream in Pennsylvania and striking at fish with its beak. During winter, northern birds have been observed waiting for fish beside holes in the ice. Each year, usually in February and March, they search for food along the Hudson River, riding on ice cakes as far south as New York City.

In their hunting, eagles have plucked flying fish from the air above warm southern waters and have swooped down to snatch up rodents plowed from fields by tractors. Beneath the eagle tree on the Kissimmee Prairie I noticed nearly a dozen empty turtle shells. Rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, weasels, snakes, birds of various kinds, all find a place on the eagle’s menu. But almost invariably the bulk of its diet consists of fish. Rarely does it build its nest far from water.

Dead as well as living fish and mammals are acceptable to the eagle. More than a century ago when immense numbers of gray squirrels left an area of overpopulation and many were drowned swimming the Ohio River near Wheeling, West Virginia, Alexander Wilson noted bald eagles for days afterwards feasting on their stranded bodies. There seems little doubt that many of the smaller farm animals brought to nests by eagles were already dead and discarded in the fields when found. Careful observations in Alaska, where the bald eagle has been under long and bitter attack by commercial fishing interests, indicate that most of the salmon taken are dead or exhausted after spawning — fish that already have come to the natural end of their lives.

No doubt the eagles of Alaska, the greatest concentration anywhere in the world, do feed on live salmon as the millions of fish swim upstream at spawning time. But so they had been doing for thousands of years while the salmon remained undiminished in numbers. Uncontrolled fishing, increasing canneries, illegal seining by man, not the infinitesimal fraction subtracted by the eagles, have been the obvious causes of the dwindling supply. Benjamin Franklin condemned the bald eagle as “bad” because, he said, it did not hunt its own food. Alaskans condemned the bald eagle as “bad” because, they said, it did. Which reveals much about the absurdity of the homocentric viewpoint in evaluating the morals of wildlife.

ALOFT in the sky the American eagle is a bird supreme. It is master of virtually every other creature that flies. But often it keeps its power in reserve. Confident in its strength, it seems slow to anger. With powerful wingbeats it will flap along in dignified aloofness surrounded by a flock of screaming, diving crows. It submits to the attack of kingbirds and even, as Herrick once observed, of the thumb-sized blue-gray gnatcatcher. Some, witnessing these events, have called the eagle a coward. But always, when aroused, it can whirl on any attacker, scattering a flock or annihilating an individual.

Man with his gun is the eagle’s only potent enemy. Experience has taught it to be wary. While Broley ascended to the nest in the Kissimmee tree, I watched the parent birds circle beyond gunshot, uttering not the scream popularly associated with the eagle but a curiously small, rustyhinge creaking call, their note of alarm. They made no effort to attack the man. This attitude, too. has been attributed to cowardice. It might just as fairly be called a sign of intelligence. The eagle learned quickly that the price of life and liberty was vigilance in remaining beyond the range of guns. This caution has played an important part in the survival of these birds at a time when many factors have combined to reduce their numbers.

As a small boy in the dune country of northern Indiana, soon after the turn of the century, I used to spend hours clinging to the roof of a low farmhouse watching eagles that passed high overhead toward the Lake Michigan shore. At that time there were eagle trees in the dunes. Today no bald eagle nests in the region. The bird itself comes there only as a wandering or casual visitor.

As early as 1904‚ John Burroughs was writing in Far and Near: ”I see fewer eagles along the Hudson River than I used to see fifteen years ago.” Throughout the land the great birds have been shot for fun or to produce a stuffed trophy or in a self-righteous war on “vermin.” Egg collectors have robbed their eyries. Farmers have chopped down their nesting trees. Game commissions have done little to provide protection. Everywhere the decrease of the eagle has been the handiwork of man. Only a small proportion of Americans today have ever seen the emblem of their country soaring high above them, wild and free.

From 1917 to 1952‚ a period of thirty-five years, every bald eagle in Alaska lived with a price on its head. Its destruction was rewarded with a bounty. For each pair of talons, the territorial government offered first fifty cents, then a dollar, finally two dollars. During these years more than $100,000 was paid out in such bounties. Before the slaughter ended, about 115‚000 American eagles had been destroyed.

It was not until 1940, 158 years after it had been honored by the Continental Congress, that the eagle received legal protection in all of the forty-eight states. And 170 years had passed before, on July 1, 1952, protection was extended to the bird in Alaska. Federal statutes now provide for a fine up to $500 for harming an American eagle. Thus the long persecution of our national bird is over — officially. Nowhere now is a price set on its head. Everywhere under the Stars and Stripes the bird is protected by law.

But other factors, more difficult to control than bounties and firearms, still work against the eagle. The spread of mechanized civilization, the growth of population, changing environment, the destruction of nesting sites — these are producing a profound effect among the birds in some areas, particularly in Florida. In a recent letter Charles L. Broley reports that along the coast between Tampa and Englewood where, only a decade ago, he counted more than eighty nests producing young, this year he could find but two. In the past fifteen years, he estimates, the number of active nests in Florida has dropped from about 450 to fewer than 200. Immature birds have become relatively scarce. In the early 1930s more than 50 per cent of all American eagles passing Hawk Mountain in the fall were immature birds. In recent years, however, this figure has dropped to about 20 per cent. It is Broley’s belief that well over half the adult eagles in Florida today are too old to reproduce.

From mid-December to mid-February, each winter, concentrations of American eagles build up along the Mississippi in the IllinoisIowa region. As many as fifty or a hundred may congregate in one place. But these birds are drawn from a vast nesting area to the north still relatively unaffected by the spread of population. It is in the eastern states, to some extent around Chesapeake Bay but most of all in Florida, that the impact of human expansion is producing the most abrupt change in the status of the eagle. As the wave of building has swept down the west coast of Florida, felling many of the ancient nesting trees, there is evidence that some of the birds have retreated to inland cypress swamps. It may be that among stands of such trees in sanctuaries like the Everglades National Park the Florida eagles will find an undisturbed and permanent nesting place.