Author: John Bedell (Democrat)
Ah, the Bald Eagle. With grace and majesty it floats through the air, the stark white head stands out against the cloudless blue sky. Spotting a pine tree, our friend the Eagle calmly comes to a landing on the thickest branch, three-quarters of the way up the tree, and surveys the land below, the yellow beak maintaining a noble smirk as the cool breeze flows through its feathers. Surely, a bird such as this is the embodiment of all that is true and moral, incapable of any petty squabbling that preoccupies the lives of too many other birds, right?
The truth is that the bald eagle has some habits that are far from noble, and that are far from majestic.
To many, the Bald Eagle likely serves as a symbol for the apex predator. The top dog, or bird if you will. This raptor is revered by many as the alpha in the environment, tracking, hunting, and eating all that it desires. Interestingly, the Bald Eagle often resorts to tactics that are quite the opposite. The bald eagle eats whatever that is most convenient, and that often means stealing food from other birds, especially their smaller counterpart, the osprey. Bald eagles will eat dead or decaying carrion, and often intimidate smaller birds into giving up its hard fought dinner.
Eagles are far from the best parents. Oftentimes, they will force their young out of the nest, requiring their fledglings figure out how to soar, fly, and land on branches, after which they will have to hop back up, branch after branch, to the nest, where they will hop out, soar down, and have to climb back up once more.
The bald eagle is clearly less than the model citizen.
I am not the only one to make this observation, as founding father Benjamin Franklin opposed the decision to coin the Bald Eagle as our national bird, too, writing “[the] Bald Eagle…is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself.” While Benjamin Franklin’s mythical alternative of a turkey may not have been the best option, the life of the Bald Eagle and its role as America’s symbol raise an interesting thought. The Bald Eagle has become synonymous with patriotism, the Stars and Stripes, and the USA; however, how well does this bird reflect our country?
The United States has a troubled history. With various tragedies enacted by the United States upon the BIPOC community, thievery has cemented itself in the nation’s story. While we may not have been stealing fish from the birds that caught it before us, our egregious violations of human dignity in the form of enslavement, broken treaties, and violence are far worse. Just as the Bald Eagle sees an opportunity as a mere opportunity—regardless of moral implications, so did we as a country. We saw lands as our lands, people as our slaves, and ours as god-given gifts. We had no forethought as to the moral implications, and if we did, we suppressed them. The Eagle feasts on his “catch” without a care as to where it came or what it did, as for that moment the Eagle is fed. He is not thinking of the Osprey as he sucks down salmon. In the same way, for far too long, we as a nation have failed to confront our troubled history, and the pain we have caused.
When a bald eagle hatches, it is known as a fledgling, and for only 12 weeks are they in the care of their parents. Often being tossed out of the nest and forced to hop back up, exhausting tree branch after exhausting tree branch, these eagles are simply expected to survive this process. If an eaglet falls, the parents often leave it. This small bird, unable to find enough space to pump its wings and fly, is often doomed. While eagle parents help to train their fledglings, and these eagles more often than not grow into strong adult eagles, America’s support for the most vulnerable does not align with this redemptive quality of the Bald Eagle. As often as we force our neighbors out of the nest, we as a nation often expect them to hop up double the number of branches we did, giving them no wings, no ladder, and simply expecting them to hop out of a situation where the next branch may be out of reach, as seen in the recent study that shows 42% of men born into the lower ⅕ of society stay there as adults. This likely comes from a variety of reasons, likely beginning with the “erosion of real minimum wage” that began in the 1980s. While this may play a formative role in the lives of these eagles, the growing polarization between the most vulnerable in our society and the well-off is preparing our nation for a dangerous reckoning in our increasingly stratified society. Too many of our baby eagles have fallen from the nest, and too often have we left them, expecting them to pump their own wings in situations where they have no room to do so.
After looking at all of these condemnatory characteristics of our national bird, the Bald Eagle, it is fair to wonder why this bird is even mentioned in the same sentence as our nation.
The answer is symbolized in the coloration of the Bald Eagle’s color. The Bald Eagle is neither all good nor all bad, but rather a mix of black and white.
We love the Bald Eagle for the same reasons we love our country. As complex and confusing as this bird may be, it stands for something more. The Eagle is resilient. Bald Eagles were on the Endangered Species List. Bald Eagles have been threatened by lead poisoning, near extinction due to the pesticide DDT, and a constantly shrinking habitat. By all traditional measures, the Bald Eagle should be long gone by now. It should have gone extinct years ago. And yet, if you get lucky, you may look up at the sky and see this familiar shadow fly overhead when you step outside. Even with all of these threats to their existence, Bald Eagles mate for life, maintaining a certain hope that when they return, their nest and their mate will be there. This animal has the audacity to believe that year after year they can return to their nest, and continue to live, the subconscious mentality that whatever happens, they will continue to survive.
This unabashed confidence mirrors that of our nation. Many years ago, our country had the audacity to exist, and to this point, people across the nation have the audacity to believe in a better future. The audacity to believe that they have the capacity to make a difference, that year after year their nest will be there, and tomorrow will come with new opportunities. Over half of Americans optimistic about the future of the world, specifically the world outside of politics.
When a baby Eagle flies for the first time, consider the possibilities it must think of, the opportunities it now has, and the power it now brings. Our nation is much the same way. When we see a problem, millions of Americans have mobilized, marched, voted, picketed, and petitioned for what is right. Just as Eagles may continue to scavenge, our nation will continue to make mistakes; however, if we take a lesson from our avian counterparts, it will be to believe that, somehow, a year from extinction is not the end. Somehow the evils and perils that poison our society do not spell out doom.
When you see an Eagle on a T-Shirt, bumper sticker, or tree branch, remember the duality of this bird. Benjamin Franklin was skeptical of its resemblance of this country, but reality reveals that this bird is almost a mirror image of this country, blemishes and all. Let it remind you of the problems to be solved, but also of our audacity to solve them. And maybe one day, we will build more branches, return more fish, and become a bird of unity, liberty, and compassion, rather than a bird of prey. Until then, take a lesson from the redeemable resilience of this bird. Keep believing that tomorrow is not the end, because throughout the course of our country, it has been the resilient Eagles that have made the biggest difference.
This article has been fact checked and edited by the editorial team of Next Publius. We do our best to minimize cherry-picking of data, and we try to include multiple sides and opinions on any given topic. We recognize that it is often impossible to eliminate all biased language and data in their entirety from an article, especially when the research and discourse around certain topics are slanted in favor of a particular stance. We also recognize that authors and editors have their own fair share of biases. To combat this, we identify contributors’ affiliations and political leanings at the top of each article, and we provide other interpretations, opinions, and rebuttals beneath them. Read more about Next Publius’ mission here.