As I drive across the bridge over the reservoir, I spot it circling high overhead. At first, I thought it was a turkey vulture. We have so many here; they frequently dot the sky, soaring and catching thermals to lift them to greater heights. But then, even so far away, I see a flash of white from the tail. I pull the car over and stop. I need a better look. Then another flash of white, this time from the head. Is it possible, right here, a mile from my house? It swoops by closer to me. No doubt about it; I’ve just been privileged to see our national symbol, and so close to home!
No words can adequately describe this bird. Majestic comes close, even regal, but some things defy characterization by language alone. You must see it and then take a moment to appreciate how it made you feel. Like other natural wonders, the Rocky Mountains, the redwood forest, Niagara Falls, or the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, it takes your breath away.
Knowing that a bald eagle shares this neighborhood with me is exhilarating. It also gives me hope. The eagle is an example of how we can undo the damage we’ve done to nature. When we decide it’s worth our time, money, and energy to heal the wounds, it can be successful. We are intimately connected to nature; when we repair the damage, we heal ourselves.
The bald eagle’s saga is a Rocky Balboa story. Both were underdogs in their fight for survival. Rocky's foe was Apollo Creed, the eagles' foe, us. In our zeal to control disease-carrying mosquitoes, we developed chemicals to kill them. The effort was effective, but collateral damage nearly wiped out our nation’s avian symbol. It was a punch in the face to the birds; the bald eagle species lay bloody and beaten on the boxing ring mat.
But like Rocky, the bald eagle was down but not out. DDT was killing the species by making their eggshells so soft they couldn’t produce chicks. Thanks to activists like Rachel Carson, awareness of the problem led to DDT being banned in the US in 1972. (see https://www.natureloversdigest.com/post/my-nomination-for-woman-of-the-century-biologist-rachel-carson-here-s-why) (Unfortunately, it is still used in some countries.) We also protected the birds from hunters and restored their habitat. We invested in the species, and it worked. Their numbers have grown; now, over 300,000 in the US. They even live in our neighborhoods.
It would be easy to pat ourselves on the back and point to the bald eagle as a success story in environmental conservation. It exemplifies how we can right a wrong in our quest to save nature and, as such, a cause for celebration. But questions remain.
When so many species are threatened with extinction, why did we save this one? Is it because the bald eagle, like the Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty, is a national symbol, a visual representation of our freedom? Is it because it is majestic, beautiful, and awe-inspiring? No one questions our commitment to saving these amazing birds of prey. But which other endangered species, both plant and animal, will we protect?
We saved the bald eagle; will we save the Florida grasshopper sparrow?
We’re trying to save monarch butterflies; will we protect the rusty patched bumblebee?
We’re trying to save Alaskan salmon; will we save the Beluga sturgeon?
We’re trying to save the redwood forests of California; will we protect the pitch pine forests of the New Jersey Pine Barrens?
Human beings are self-centered. We rescue species that benefit us in some symbolic, scenic, or commercial way. But will we also invest in others whose value is simply that they share the planet with us? Being connected to nature means being connected not only to the bald eagle but to all of it; tiny birds, weirdly shaped fish, insects that can sting us, and short scrubby pine trees that grow in the forests of New Jersey. The bald eagle taught us what's possible. Have we learned from that lesson? Time will tell.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Albert Einstein
Megan Evansen. Saving the Bald Eagle, a Conservation Success Story. https://defenders.org/blog/2023/01/saving-bald-eagle-conservation-success-story
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Final Report: Bald Eagle Population Size: 2020 Update. https://www.fws.gov/sites/default/files/documents/2020-bald-eagle-population-size-report.pdf