Love this photo, from the great folks at Yellowstone National Park:
From the Yellowstone NP Facebook site: An adult bald eagle perched along the Firehole River on New Year’s Day, near a trumpeter swan that it had either killed or was scavenging. Adult bald eagles usually remain in or near their nest territory throughout winter provided they have access to sufficient prey. Photo courtesy of Chris Daniel. (kd)
It’s a reminder of progress we’ve made in environmental protection.
While bald eagles may not have been the most endangered animal protected under the Endangered Species Act, or any other law, they became the most famous. In the late 18th century Congress voted to designate the bald eagle as our national symbol. At the time, the continent was still lousy with the creatures. But from the arrival of Europeans after 1492, eagles had been hunted mercilessly. By the early 20th century it was clear the animal was bound for extinction, like the great auk and other species (see here for technical information on the auk).
Ben Franklin complained the eagle was a dirty carrion eater, in a smart and funny polemic favoring the American turkey as the national bird. Franklin couldn’t know how hunting and in-breeding would suck the nobility out of even wild turkeys over the next 200 years, until species protection laws and hunters pushed governments to invigorate stocks of wild turkeys again. Compared to the eagle’s troubles, though, the turkey’s genetic torpor and limited habitat was almost nothing.
Americans tried to save the eagle. After 1890, and during the run on great bird feathers that excited the fashion world and led to the senseless slaughter of millions of America’s most spectacular birds, we passed a federal law against hunting and shooting eagles for sport or no reason. It was a toothless law, and the decline of eagle populations begun in the early 16th century continued unabated. Migratory bird treaties, providing more legal heft to bird protection, didn’t help the eagles either — not enough of them crossed borders, at least not that hunters and law enforcement could see. The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, kicking into action in 1941, provided teeth to eagle hunting restrictions, and hunters stopped shooting them so much. Between 1940 and 1950, eagle populations stabilized, with a good bunch in Alaska, and a few nesting pairs spread from Oregon to Maine, Lake of the Woods to Florida Everglades. There were so few eagles, and they were spread so far apart, that most Americans could not see one without major effort and travel.
Bird watchers noticed trouble in the 1950s. Young eagles stopped showing up for the Audubon Christmas bird count, and at the Hawk Mountain migration counts. Adults went through the motions, migrating, hunting, building nests, laying eggs for all anyone knew, and hatching young that had been seen, sometimes, to fledge — but then the young birds died. Between leaving the nest, and returning to mate up and breed, the young birds simply disappeared.
Research showed deeper trouble. On careful observation the birds were seen to be frustrated in hatching and raising chicks. Sometimes the eggs wouldn’t hatch. If they did hatch, the chicks died. The few who lived to fly out, died soon after.
Rachel Carson called attention to the trouble in her 1962 claxon call on pesticide and chemical pollution, Silent Spring (50 years ago in 2012).
Doctor Science at Obsidian Wings wrote a paean to seeing bald eagles in the wild, with a brief and kind mention of this blog. You should go read it there.
Protecting birds? The Steve Milloys, CEIs, AEIs, Heritage Foundations, CATO Institutes and other dens of smug cynicism and bad citizenship have it all wrong. It’s not about power for environmentalists. It’s nothing so cheap or mean. Heck. Often it’s not even about protecting the birds so much.
It’s about protecting our own dreams, and places we have to inspire those dreams. Frederick Jackson Turner postulated that there is something mystical and magical in a frontier that helped form the American character and make us hard-working, smart, and noble. He was right, of course. Those frontiers are not simply frontiers of settlement in the wilderness anymore. We have to work to find them, to declare Alaska the “Last Frontier,” or government reform and Cold War enterprise as the “New Frontier.” But we still need frontiers.
Eagles still soar there. Wherever eagles soar, in fact, we find those frontiers, those places to dream and inspire. The Endangered Species Act isn’t about saving animals and plants. It’s about saving our own souls.