The golden eagle could have been our national bird

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118840930612133.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘The golden eagle got its name because of the gold feathers on its neck. William Shakespeare called it the Feathered King, and kings used to be the only people who were allowed to hunt these birds. Today, it is illegal to hunt them. They are 30 to 36 inches long, weigh from 6 to 13 pounds, and an adult wingspan is 6 to 8 feet. Their tail has 12 feathers, and they have very sharp talons to kill large animals. Overall, the golden eagle looks like the turkey vulture. (Info courtesy of‘);

We have all heard the story, true or not, that when the Founding Fathers selected the bald eagle as our national bird, Ben Franklin argued against it, preferring the wild turkey as it has none of the obnoxious habits of the eagle. Franklin argued that the bald eagle routinely stole food from other birds and frequently fed on carrion. But the noble demeanor of the eagle prevailed, and it is a native, found only in the United States. If old Ben had suggested the golden eagle, he might have had a chance of getting it selected, Though the golden eagle has none of the bald eagle’s bad habits, it is found mainly in the west and in other countries. It is circumpolar in distribution, being also found in Europe and Asia. A stray golden eagle may be spotted east of the Rocky Mountains, but I have never seen one in this section of the United States, though there are several reports of their spotting in Illinois. It is not surprising that several western Indian tribes adopted the golden eagle as a sacred symbol and used its plumage in their ceremonial headdresses.

The golden eagle has long been called the King of Birds, and it rightly deserves the title. It is majestic in flight, regal in appearance and dignified in manner. When falconry flourished in Europe, only kings were allowed to hunt with the golden eagle. Its hunting tactics are like that of a falcon: clean, spirited and dashing, and inspired the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson to describe it thusly:

“He clasps the crag with hooked hands, close to the sun in lonely lands,

“Ringed with the azure world he stands, the wrinkled sea beneath him crawls.

He watches from his mountain walls, and like a thunderbolt he falls.”

This eagle is a strong bird and is more than a match for any animal of similar size. It feeds mainly on birds, mammals, and an occasional snake that it captures itself. Ground squirrels, prairie dogs, rabbits, hares, small fawns and grouse are favorite items on the eagle’s menu. It seldom attacks young lambs or calves. And there is no truth to the old wives’ tale that young children have been carried off to be killed and eaten.

This eagle nests in a high tree or an inaccessible cliff. The aerie is made up of a hodgepodge collection of sticks that is added to each year, and a pair of eagles will usually return to the same spot to nest each year.

Man is about the only enemy the golden eagle has. Ranchers in the west have long sought to destroy any eagle they may encounter. This malicious and unnecessary human behavior is outrageous and results from long-held beliefs in the supposed destructiveness of the eagle, both golden and bald. The indiscriminate shooting and the poisoning of eagles, along with the widespread broadcasting of chlorinated hydrocarbon-type insecticides, drove eagle populations to the endangered status, but in recent years both the golden and the bald have been elevated to the threatened.category.

For years, the shooting of eagles from airplanes took a terrible toll on population numbers. It is reported, for instance, that pilots flying out of Alpine, in western Texas, shot between 675 and 1,008 golden eagles during the period of 1941-1946. A federal law passed in 1961 now prohibits the hunting of eagles from airplanes. The shooting of “undesirable” animals from the air, however, continues today. Coyotes are routinely hunted from the air in the Lower 48, and I recently noted a report that the state of Alaska was again offering a bounty for wolves shot from the air.

The golden eagle rarely, if ever, feeds on fish, and this habit acted to prevent the ingestion of as great amounts of DDT as its cousin, the bald eagle. The insecticide interferes with the reproductive process of birds and causes eggs that are produced to have thin shells. Thin-shelled eggs tend to break under the weight of the mother during the process of incubation.

I doubt if Ben Franklin ever saw a golden eagle when he pushed for the wild turkey to be our national bird. The main thing I see the turkey had going for it was that it was good to eat. Besides, I would be embarrassed to have the representation of a turkey on patriotic symbols.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

from the Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 2007, issue

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