How The Bald Eagle Ended Up As America’s National Bird

Bald eagles are virtually synonymous with America in pop culture and government insignia. While the birds were on the verge of extinction for a time, they remain a protected species long after their wild population recovered. Any interaction with wild eagles, not just hunting them, can still incur heavy penalties including a year in jail. Additionally, many private institutions have taken to housing both releasable and non-releasable eagles, including Dolly Parton’s theme park, Dollywood, in large part due to their protected status and symbolism.

The bald eagle’s place as a symbol of the United States was established in 1782 (via Library of Congress). The use of an eagle had already been settled upon, per American desire to emulate ancient institutions that also utilized birds of prey in their iconography such as the Roman Republic. It wasn’t until that year that three committees had been given the responsibility of designing the new nation’s seal.

Without their symbolism, the bald eagle may have disappeared

According to History, none of the individual submissions was accepted, and the final design of the seal was instead conceived by Secretary of Congress Charles Thompson. While Benjamin Franklin (one of those who was initially tasked to come up with a design) did not seriously suggest that a turkey should be the national bird, he did say in private correspondence with his daughter that the accepted design might as well feature one (via The Franklin Institute). In his eyes, the eagle was comparable to a thief in its behavior and did not view it as a positive reflection of America. 

His criticism hardly carried over in the following centuries. Since then, several acts of Congress have been passed for the express purpose of preserving them. The federal ban on both the bird’s hunting and the improper disposal of chemicals have allowed their populations to climb back from around 1,000 in the mid-20th century to more than 300,000 individuals today (via Defenders of Wildlife). Additionally, as if unintentionally rebuking Franklin’s sentiment, in 1961 President Kennedy made it a point to discuss the danger facing bald eagles while also praising the founding fathers for making it an inextricable symbol of America (via Live Science).

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