Skip to main content

Magnificent Monarch Of The Skies

July 2024
1min read


Do we still want him for our national bird?

… If so, why do we treat him so badly? There were probably more bald eagles in our skies in 1789 when they were chosen as the national bird than at any time since. The Audubon Society now estimates that hunters, the overrunning of nesting areas, and more recently, DDT have reduced their total population to about two thousand (exclusive of Alaska, where they are still relatively numerous). Benjamin Franklin never approved of the eagle anyway. As a species he had been the favorite of too many kings and conquerors, Franklin felt, to make an appropriate American symbol, and in any case, Franklin wrote: “He is a Bird of bad moral Character … and often very lousy [in the literal sense, of course].” Franklin was referring to the bald eagle’s habit of stealing fish from the osprey, a more skillful fisherman. To be fair, it should be noted that bald eagles have some redeeming qualities, too. As well as their superb flying ability, imposing size, and astonishing vision, they are admirably stable types—monogamous, devoted parents, known to inhabit the same nest season after season.

But what if the bald eagle becomes extinct? We are unlikely to replace his image on our seals, documents, and money (or even in the AMERICAN HERITAGE symbol), but maybe we should start thinking about some humbler and more ubiquitous bird to be our supplementary emblem, our living national bird. How about one of the candidates shown here? (Our photographs are taken from The Audubon Society Book of Wild Birds , by Les Line and Franklin Russell, recently published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc.) Or should we reconsider Benjamin Franklin’s choice …

”… a much more respectable Bird…”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.