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Beauty Is Only Feather Deep

Was the bald eagle really the best choice of national symbol? A closer look at the habits and evolutionary lineage of this American icon casts doubt

Catherine Raven

At first, all I saw were a couple dozen people shuffling around, most fumbling with binoculars, a few already staring up at the sky. I generally avoid crowds, especially tour groups, when I'm out pursuing wildlife. But these people, varying in age, size and couture, were clearly disorganized. Convinced of their harmlessness and curious about the object of their attention, I parked next to them (at the Lamar River pullout in Yellowstone National Park), perched on a boulder about four meters away and quickly discovered the nature of their confusion. Although it was midday, a tiny white star seemed to be flashing in the cloudless, sapphire sky. After focusing their binoculars, the onlookers realized the star was a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), and a symphony of "oooos" and "aaaahs" began. Then, within a few minutes, a raven appeared. A protracted fight ensued during which time the relatively small raven demonstrated agility, tenacity, and bravery (a judgment that any bird expert would confirm as unbiased, my surname notwithstanding). The bald eagle demonstrated the better part of valor and fled.

Had scientist Ben Franklin’s views prevailed...Click to Enlarge Image

"Yessss!" I shouted spontaneously, thrusting my right fist forward to salute the raven's coup, at which point the entire crowd turned toward me and stared as if I were a devil worshipper. Sure, I've received worse looks, but never by so many people simultaneously. I would have avoided those malevolent expressions had I shown up 200 years earlier, when the only people in the valley were Indians. In those days, a person could choose to raise a hand to honor either the raven's skillfulness or the bald eagle's beauty. But the most revered bird in this area would likely have been the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Countless natives probably rode through this valley with golden eagles painted on their horses. Today, tourists ride through with bald eagles painted on their motorcycles.

The transfer of allegiances began with Thomas Jefferson, who appointed the bald eagle to serve as the national emblem for the new American nation. It was a classic example of the outdated practice of physiognomy. Now considered a pseudoscience and an excuse for racism, advocates of physiognomy held that a person or animal's true nature was revealed by its outward appearance. Because of its white head and yellow eyes, physiognomists concluded that the bald eagle was fierce and noble. To his credit, Benjamin Franklin, the scientist, rejected this false logic, recognizing that the baldie was, in fact, a pirate and worse still, a "rank coward, commonly fleeing birds the size of sparrows." Franklin suggested that the turkey, a bird of many virtues, be used for the emblem instead. But Franklin's arguments didn't prevail: It seems our young nation was more concerned with symbolism than natural history, and the turkey had less charisma than the eagle.

Jefferson's ignorance of the bald eagle's feeding habits is difficult to justify. The eagle's lifestyle was accurately described in 1754 by the well-respected English naturalist Mark Catesby. In Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, Catesby identified the bald eagle as a scavenger whose favorite fishing hole was inside the nest of an osprey (Pandion haliaetus). Donating food to the bald eagle may be only a minor inconvenience for the osprey, an adept hunter, according to Catesby, that "seldom rises without a fish."

It's not surprising that baldies steal more than they hunt: They are not, in fact, true eagles. You can't be a member of that elite group (genus Aquila) with partially feathered legs and dubious feeding habits. The bare-ankled bald eagles are a type of sea eagle that diverged from the African vulture lineage only a few million years ago. Although they may at times hunt, they retain the vulture's ability to survive an entire lifetime on rancid, decaying flesh. They are obligated by neither physiology nor instinct to take live prey. By contrast, the golden eagle and osprey are both obligate hunters.

If by chance Jefferson understood this much natural history, he certainly didn't enlighten his buddy Meriwether Lewis before festooning him with bald-eagle insignia and sending him west to court the various Indian nations. Convincing potential allies that your intentions are honorable can be difficult when your totem is a bird who makes its living dispossessing property. Maybe Jefferson, prescient of future U.S.–Indian relations, enjoyed a little black humor. In any case, halfway through the expedition, Lewis became suspicious of the bird's purported nobility. In one of his journal's few sarcastic entries, he derides the baldie as both a thief and a scavenger. "We continue to see a great number of bald Eagles. I presume they must feed on the carcasses of dead animals, for I see no fishing hawks [osprey] to supply them with their favorite food."

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