Few things are as iconically American as the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Though it became the national bird of the United States in 1782, human influence including overhunting, overfishing, DDT poisoning, and habitat destruction drove numbers down significantly. Through decades of dedicated conservation, the bald eagle rebounded from being endangered in the mid-1900s to being recategorized as Least Concern back in 2007. This is an incredible feat, but does it mean the bald eagle is really out of danger?
Matthew Wills penned a short essay in JSTOR Daily entitled “Bald Eagles Are Back From The Brink,” in which he describes the decline and subsequent comeback of the bald eagle during the 20th century. Wills includes the fact that bald eagles have been seen in New York City near the Hudson River as a sign that things are improving.
“That’s the good news. But these big birds aren’t out the woods yet; threats and challenges abound,” Wills wrote in his essay. “While DDT is banned in the U.S., other toxins like mercury and lead continue to bedevil them. In lower than fatal amounts, they can cause behavioral changes, neurological damage, and reduced reproduction success.”
So, though bald eagle numbers might look good now, that might not always be the case. In addition to the threats described by Wills as a result of pollution, bald eagles and other birds face another large, looming threat: climate change.
A report conducted by the National Audubon Society that was released in September stated that 126 species of bird could lose half of their range by 2050, with another 188 species in danger of losing their homes by 2080. While this certainly isn’t good news, it’s a prediction, not a definite sentence. Continued protection for bald eagles, particularly of their breeding sites, could help sustain their numbers.
“One thing is sure, though,” Wills continued, “you stand a far better chance today of seeing one of these majestic creatures than people did 40 years ago.”
Though bald eagles might be the national bird of the United States, it’s not the only iconic avian out there. The steps that will help preserve the range and populations of bald eagles for generations to come can also be applied to other iconic American birds, such as the Baltimore Oriole, Greater Sage-Grouse, Spotted Owl, and Common Loon, among others.
If you'd like to learn more about current threats to American birds, including interactive maps and more, please click here.