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Our national symbol

The founders of the United States wanted a bird to symbolize a nation they hoped would be strong and powerful, one that could soar high in the sky to represent freedom. They chose the bald eagle, an eagle species found only in North America. You can see images of bald eagles on coins, stamps, and much more.

Are bald eagles really bald?

No! Their head is covered with short, white feathers. The term bald may be from the Old English word balde, which meant white. Bald eagles are sometimes called American eagles, fishing eagles, Washington eagles, and white-headed eagles. They belong to a scientific grouping of eagles known as sea-eagles or fish eagles.

Benjamin Franklin thought the bald eagle was a poor choice for a national symbol because it sometimes steals food from other birds. He recommended the wild turkey.
When a bald eagle loses a feather on one wing, it will lose a matching one on the other. This way it doesn’t lose its balance.
The largest known eagle nest was found in Florida. It was 9 feet (2.7 meters) across, 20 feet (6 meters) deep, and weighed over two tons (2 tonnes).
The bald eagle deserves a “hand” for one of its characteristics: its grip strength is 10 times that of the average human.

The San Diego Zoo’s first bald eagles arrived in 1933 from a U.S. Navy ship docked in port. Today, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has bald eagles in a beautiful exhibit in Condor Ridge.

Bald eagles are at the top of the avian food chain, so their only natural enemies are bears and wolves. When their population drops, it means humans have done something to harm the eagles’ wild habitat. Bald eagle populations starting declining in the late 1800s, with many killed for sport. In the mid 1900s, farmers began using pesticides to protect their crops from insects. They didn’t realize that eagles would eat fish from bodies of water that had been contaminated by overuse of the poison.

In a joint resolution to Congress, President Reagan proclaimed 1982 the Bicentennial Year of the American Bald Eagle and noted June 20, 1982, as National Bald Eagle Day. By the time of this resolution, bald eagles had become endangered in 43 states. Fortunately, the use of pesticides is better regulated now, and bald eagles have made a dramatic comeback in some states. However, what happened to them shows how all wildlife is linked together.

Bald eagles are currently classified as threatened in southern Canada and most of the United States by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and were recently de-listed from the its endangered species list. They are still abundant in their northern range, especially in Alaska.

One way to help eagles and other birds is to recycle paper so that there will be more trees left for them to nest in. You can help us bring birds of prey back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.