"The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird” | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Pulitzer Prize winner Jack Davis scores with his majestic double biography of the bald eagle as both creature and symbol.
“Americans forced the bald eagle to exist in virtual parallel universes,” he writes. “In one, it was a heart-beating species: chick, juvenile, parent—a dynamic of nature. In another, it was a symbol, metaphor, icon, avatar. ...In one universe people hunted it down; in the other, the Americanization of popular culture raised it up.”
Davis offers a plethora of surprising data about the species and punctures many popular misconceptions about bald eagles: the lore that the turkey was under consideration for the United States national bird, and the myth that eagles carry off human babies are two examples.
In 1782, the bald eagle was chosen to be inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States. To the founders, this avian species with an 8-foot wingspan represented “fidelity, self-reliance, strength, and courage.” Exclusive only to North America, the eagle embodied “the picture of the nation's full-fledged independence and sovereignty.”
There were those, however, who looked askance at eagles. Farmers saw them as malicious predators who snatched up their lambs, pigs and chickens. John Audubon depicted eagles as “ferocious” and “overbearing” and promoted their extinction. Farmers and naturalists alike shot, poisoned, and strangled them by the tens of thousands collecting a bounty for each pair of talons they could present to the government agent.
Alaska paid bounties for bald eagles until 1952. Records from the 49th state indicate that nearly 130,000 of the birds were killed in the years prior to the ban. Davis calls bald eagles “the bird of paradox” and concludes: “Yet no animal in American history, certainly no avian one, has to the same extreme been the simultaneous object of reverence and recrimination. For centuries, eagles risked their lives flying across American skies”
By the end of the 1800s, the Haliaeetus leucocephalus species was near extinction. This threat sparked some states to outlaw hunting eagles. In the early 1900s, Audubon Societies were established in 22 states to educate people about the migration patterns, breeding and communication of these magnificent creatures. The public was informed that eagles are monogamous and among the animal world’s best parents. Awareness of these traits began a slow resurgence of interest in these raptors. This change of attitude culminated with the 1940 enactment of “The Bald Eagle Protection Act”, the first federal law to protect an individual species, even though to win Congressional approval, the Alaska territory was excluded from the ban.
In the 1950s, when DDT became a commonly used pesticide, it turned out to be a devastating threat to eagles because it caused nest failures: many eggs were not laid or the shells of those that were became too thin for a successful hatch. After the use of the potent pesticide was banned in 1972, the bald eagle species began a remarkable recovery. By 2007 bald eagles were removed from the list of endangered and threatened species. According to Davis, the population appears to have rebounded to the same level as existed before the U.S. became a nation.
Davis’ writing is extraordinary. He includes rollicking stories of people who staged “nest-ins” to create awareness of the eagles’ decline. He champions ornithologists and biologists who recruited chickens to incubate clutches of bald eagle eggs or turned to super glue to seal cracked shells to save every possible rare egg. The author also slips in sobering facts like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife estimates that pesticides still kill 67 million other birds a year. His descriptions are poetic and vibrant: “On descent, primary flight feathers splay and twist; tailfeathers pitch upward and downward.”
Davis makes clear that cultural and political histories are an integral part of natural history if we want to know the whole story. His book is a celebration of naturalists, politicians, breeders, and others who have been advocates for this regal raptor. Davis’ “Bald Eagle” soars.
About the Author: Jack E. Davis is the Rothman Family Chair in the Humanities at the University of Florida. In addition to his Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Gulf,” he has written “An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century.”