BOOK REVIEW: The Bald Eagle

The Bald Eagle: The Improbable History of America’s Bird
Jack E. Davis
Liveright Publishing Company
Copyright 2022 by the author

I’ve seen three so far. The first while on a bridge across the Hudson River at Albany, during a road trip with a friend. I was surprised to see one, in part because it was an urban environment. Didn’t think they’d like cities. The second was in southern Westchester County NY, on my way to work one morning. It was perched atop a pine tree at the side of the road, minding its own business. Again, it was a surprise, since it was another “semi-urban” environment. I suppose the golf course in the neighborhood made for prime squirrel and rabbit hunting grounds. The most recent was at a nature preserve on Long Island Sound. I spotted it flying off into the distance. This was a more natural environment for it; plenty of fish in the waters – and ospreys to steal from. I suppose I’ll be seeing more in the future.

In the meantime, Davis has penned a wonderful history of the bald eagle, based on its relationship with America and Americans. Both a “natural history” of Haliaeetus leucocephalus, and the actual history of how it became our national symbol.

He begins with the story behind the national seal (the thing depicted on the back of the dollar bill). It may seem like a distraction, but it is important to note that eagles have long been a part of national heraldry, and the new nation was in need of something that put it on a comparative footing with other nations. A bald eagle was the obvious choice.

Meanwhile, farmers and hunters were shooting them out of the sky. The former because the birds were allegedly attacking and carrying off livestock; the latter because they could. Davis dwells on this glaring dichotomy – we loved the symbol, but hated the actual bird. What I found refreshing was that his tone was never accusatory or even angry. And that carried over into the section on the eagle and Native Americans. He does note – he can’t avoid it – that settlers kept pushing the natives further and further west as they grabbed more land, but does not get on a soapbox and blame anyone for it. Even when he gets to the 20th century and DDT enters the chat, he simply states that the chemical companies encouraged the rampant overuse of their product, despite all the existing warnings and usage restrictions that were known and in place. He refrains from assigning guilt. “This happened; and here’s how people found out what it was doing to the bald eagle population.” That’s pretty much it.

There’s very little science to wade through. This is a history, after all. This is about the early years of the Audubon Society, when they were more a “sportsman’s” organization than a “preservation” one. This is about the territory of Alaska, where they put bounties on bald eagles since they were having a detrimental effect on the fishing industry. This is about the “citizen scientists” (as we’d call them nowadays), who climbed into trees and eagle nests to observe and study the birds, and even slap bands on them to track their migrations.

He brings the tale all the way up to the current day, with the reintroduction of bald eagles across the country. You can visit “rehabilitated” birds at various educational centers, watch their nests on webcams, and even walk with one as part of a PTSD treatment. But they still pilfer chickens, get killed by power lines, and nest in places where everyone would rather they didn’t. It’s a complicated relationship – just as it has been throughout all of our nation’s history.


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