Almost everyone knows (or should know) what a Bald Eagle looks like. This very large bird of prey appears on flags, coins, stamps, greeting cards, bumper stickers and many other everyday items. Some illustrations are accurate and actually look like the real bird, but others bear no resemblance to an eagle, either alive or dead; one wonders where in the world these things are made.
The Bald Eagle was chosen as the national emblem of the United States in 1782 when the 13 original colonies were sparring with Britain and declaring their independence from the mother country. The new seal was designed by a Philadelphia naturalist and, although the design went through a few minor changes, the end result was what we see today – an eagle clutching an olive branch in one talon and a bundle of arrows in the other. However, not everyone was pleased with the choice. Benjamin Franklin was not happy with the Bald Eagle as the national symbol. He thought the bird was lazy, stealing fish from other birds and having a “bad moral character” – whatever that might mean! John James Audubon agreed with Franklin; both thought that a better candidate would have been the Wild Turkey, a bird of courage who would not hesitate to attack intruders. In spite of these opinions we now have the Bald Eagle as our national symbol.
As many people know, the Bald Eagle is a very large bird with a wingspan of around 6-7 feet. It flies on huge broad wings that are held on a very level plane, unlike the dihedral or “V” shaped flight silhouette of a Turkey Vulture. The adults have the prominent white head and tail familiar to all, while the immature and sub-adult birds are varying shades of brown and white.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bald Eagle population in the lower 48 states is now at about 50,000, well down from the estimated 50-75,000 nesting pairs in the 1700s. During the early part of the twentieth century the Bald Eagle population hit a low of fewer than 500 pairs, largely due to hunting and the devastating effect of DDT use during the 1960s. Here in North Carolina there are now over 40 pairs, up from zero in 1982. The closest pair to us here in Western North Carolina is at Lake James, where they have been nesting since 1999. There are also pairs of Bald Eagles at Lakes Santeetlah and Fontana, and I am sure that in time they will be found at all or most of our main lakes and reservoirs. Currently in Buncombe County they are only transient but can be seen fairly often at local dams and lakes such as Lakes Julian and Junaluska, and also at hawk migration lookouts along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I have personally seen eagles over Whitewater Falls, at a hawk watching station in Tryon, over Lake Julian and at various overlooks along the Parkway. The months of April and September seem to be the best time to observe migrant Bald Eagles in our area. The government has now removed the Bald Eagle from the endangered species list. These birds still have a way to go to fully recover their pre-1950s numbers, but they are coming on strong.