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MACROSCOPE

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

Saved by Reputation

Americans who don't live among eagles and haven't read Lewis's journals can find enlightenment in Arthur Cleveland Bent's 1937 classic, Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey. "A fine-looking bird," Bent writes of the bald eagle, but "hardly worthy of the distinction [of being the national emblem]. Its carrion-feeding habit, its timid and cowardly behavior, and its predatory attacks on the smaller and weaker osprey hardly inspire respect." Bent's baldies-behaving-badly exposé also reveals that our nation's icon relishes vulture vomit. It's not that they find the vomit lying around; rather, they seek out vultures and force them to vomit. Then they eat the regurgitate. "Our national bird may still be admired," Bent suggests, "by those who are not familiar with its habits."

A few decades after Bent wrote those words, the time came when the bald eagle truly needed the public admiration it had so unfairly enjoyed. In the 1970s, DDT poisoning peaked, bald-eagle populations crashed, and organizations to save the bird rose up like earthworms after a rain. The tradition that Jefferson initiated was embraced by those well-meaning conservationists, who didn't believe Americans could love the bald eagle unconditionally. These activists saved the species but cemented a longstanding misunderstanding about the bald eagle's true nature. The three raptors I've discussed here might appear similar if given only a cursory glance. But ospreys are skilled fishers, golden eagles are keen hunters, and bald eagles are, well, mostly vultures. Bald eagles decorate the sky largely because they are vultures. Their white head feathers contrast with a brown body and suggest their naked-headed ancestry. And their soaring flight, though neither purposeful nor aggressive, is a vulture trait as well. Hunting birds spend more time flying low over the land, systematically searching for prey, a behavior known as quartering.

Floating over gorgeous places and enjoying the view, bald eagles seem to eschew responsibility. People might accuse me of that attitude, too, given that I spend so many hours leisurely watching birds. As a wildlife specialist, I am, technically, working during these times. Yet like the bald eagle, I adhere to routines that look more like loafing than real work. For me, it's a conscious lifestyle choice. I wouldn't deny that the turkey is the more appropriate symbol for Thomas Jefferson's concept of the nation, but for my idea of America, where the Constitution guarantees the right to pursue happiness, the bald eagle will do. After all, this is mostly how we spend our time, the bald one and I,  diligently pursuing happiness.




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