by Matthew Reichert
The Bald Eagle, native only to North America, and persecuted for many years, has become an American symbol of patriotism and freedom. Our national bird has been granted attributes and characteristics to coincide with socially constructed ideas from the United States’ stereotypical views about masculinity. Americans wrongfully associate ideas about Bald Eagles in regards to their hunting behaviors and their abilities. These birds are poor hunters, and only hunt when the prey item is almost guaranteed to be caught. Most often will steal prey items from other birds or feast on dead and decaying fish, mammals, or other birds.
The American Bald Eagle is indigenous only to North America. They are most common along the United States coastlines; around large lakes, and rivers; but they are most densely populated in Florida and Alaska. The species has been protected since 1961, after being pushed to near extinction by man. The Bald Eagle is used in a wide range of cultural symbolism; from Native American mythology, to today’s American symbol of patriotism and freedom as our national bird.
Haliaeetus leucocephalus (sea eagle with a white head), the Bald Eagle is one of the most recognizable birds around the continent. At one time, “bald” did not mean without hair, but used to mean “white,” dating back to the 17th and 18th century. Bald Eagles generally grow to a size of 2 ½ to 3 feet tall, and have wingspans of about 6 ½ feet. Mostly, female Bald Eagles grow to be larger than the males. Female birds on average grow to be between 10 and 14 pounds, and males between 8 and 10 pounds. Also, females have proportionately much larger beaks and talons than males (Gerrard and Bortolotti, 14). Their bodies and wings are dark brown; their heads and tails are bright white. The bills and feet on these birds are bright yellow, and they have black talons.
Young Bald Eagles are brown with small amounts of white throughout their entire bodies; “some immature Bald Eagles possess ragged white triangles on the undersurface of their wings—somewhat like those of Condors (Snyder 178). When the young birds begin to enter sexual maturity, (around 5 years) their adult plumage begins to emerge. The Bald Eagle falls into the sub-category of “Fish and Sea Eagles.” They are not uncommon in land-locked areas, but most prevalent along coast lines, and most concentrated in Alaska. Unfortunately, the impressive and regal sounds from Bald Eagles portrayed in films do not originate from Bald Eagles. The noises they do make is “neither musical, nor awe-inspiring”. Common vocalizations of Bald Eagles consist of seven or eight painful sounding chattering notes (Snyder 177). Some ornithologists describe the sounds as “ridiculously weak and insignificant,” or “weak in volume and trivial in expression” (Snyder 117). (http://www.soundboard.com/sb/Hawks_Hawk_sounds) In fact, these noises come from Red-Tailed Hawks. Bald Eagles sound more like pesky Gulls. (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/bald_eagle/sounds)
Bald Eagle Persecution
The Bald Eagle has been persecuted for many years throughout North America. They have been killed by farmers in efforts to protect livestock. A bounty was introduced in Alaska in attempt to rid the state of the nuisance that was the Bald Eagle. In 1917, this bounty provided $0.50 per pair of eagle feet. Then, in 1923 the amount rose to $1. Finally, in 1945 the bounty was lifted; just four years later, in 1949 it was reinstated and increased to $2. In 1961, the bounty hunt was repealed; over 100,000 eagles have been taken by man over this span of time, their populations had been brought to near extinction. A protection has since been granted to Bald Eagles in hopes to allow them to reproduce and have their populations flourish. Across the country, Bald Eagles have become increasingly rare. With national protection, and federal laws, their numbers continued to diminish due to industrialization, logging, building, and city growth, man has unknowingly continued to eliminate the Bald Eagle species. In 1963, the estimated number of breeding pairs of Bald Eagles was just over four-hundred, and were classified as endangered in the lower forty-eight states. With the banning of organochlorine pesticides in the early 1970s, the species made a miraculous comeback in their population sizes; in 1999, the population was estimated by researchers that there were more than one-hundred thousand Bald Eagles that inhabit North America (Snyder 179).
The Bald Eagle’s influence on the United States.
Commonly known as the American Eagle, the Bald Eagle is the National Bird and attributed with characteristics like nobility, freedom, strength and independence. The United States is thought to have these same qualities, and given its localization, the Bald Eagle was a perfect candidate for selection as our national icon of patriotism. All these characteristics could arguably be granted to any species. Although the bald eagle is granted these attributes, the bird does not display any sort of noble qualities. In fact, Bald Eagles have been known to chase after other birds when a catch has been made in efforts to steal their prey item. Also, Bald Eagles are not always successful at catching their own prey, or stealing for that matter; they are forced to feed on dead and decaying animals, similar to vultures, which is considered to be much less than a noble act. Benjamin Franklin characterized the Bald Eagle as a bird of “bad moral character,” seeing how they are thieves and scavengers. However, Bald Eagles are indeed noble in one aspect in regards to how we as a society view our relationships: mating. Every year Bald Eagles travel to their nest sites in hopes of reconnecting with their mate. Bald Eagles are mostly monogamous in their relationships. Only when a mate has died will they seek out a replacement. The Bald Eagle should not have been characterized to possess these attributes; however, this bird has played a vital role in American history.
American’s Association with the Bald Eagle
Bald Eagles have been attributed to represent masculinity by men across the United States. Often, they can be seen covering the upper arm or chest of a man in the form of a tattoo. Mostly, Bald Eagle tattoos are highly masculinized, usually in a position in flight with their talons ready to catch a prey item, or displaying it’s nobility with spread wings and a stern look on its face. The Bald Eagle stands with spread wings on top of the globe in the United States Marine Corps seal. On the official seal of the United States Navy, the Bald Eagle is featured standing with spread wings on an anchor in front of a naval vessel. The United States Air Force seal shows a Bald Eagle with spread wings above a shield. We grant Bald Eagles with attributes of freedom, nobility, and strength; but to what end? American men associate the Bald Eagle as being a symbol of masculinity even though the female of the species in comparison to the males are larger and stronger.
Generally, American men associate masculinity with the Bald Eagle based on appearances and its national symbolism. “It is not the living bird itself, however, but rather it is the eagle perceived as a being endowed with many metamorphic attributes, to which most Americans relate” (Lawrence 63). Bald Eagles look vicious and ferocious, with large talons and sharp beaks, they appear to be ruthless killers and extraordinarily skilled hunters. Social constructs of our society dictate that these attributes represent masculinity and should be adopted as such. Images of Bald Eagles portrayed on the body of American men show masculinity through the ability to withstand long periods of pain and discomfort and to show their allegiance to their nation. The Bald Eagle is used on American military official seals, connecting the portrayal of Bald Eagles to masculinity associated with war-fighting and “warrior” status.
Although this bird has been used as a symbol of masculinity by today’s American men, Native Americans hold eagles and eagle parts “sacred, and equate them to the cross or the Bible of western religions.” “They describe the powers of eagle feathers as “awesome”” (De Meo 774). “According to Native American belief, humans and eagles were created on the same day. Eagles were specifically made so that people could use their feathers and other parts in religious ceremonies.” Explained by a Native American medicine man, “every line on the feather tells a story or a vision that Creator gave us to understand and what we need to know to survive on Mother Earth” (De Meo 774-775). Native Americans believe that eagles delivers prayers to the Creator; since eagles soar at high altitudes, it is thought that eagles are very close to their Creator. According to De Meo, eagle feathers are used for many ceremonial rituals including marriage ceremonies, burials, baptismal name-appointing ceremonies, womanhood ceremonies, and ceremonies involving young men becoming warriors (De Meo 776). Throughout Native American civilizations and modern western civilizations, the Bald Eagle has been used to symbolize masculinity and associated with war fighters.
The Bald Eagle has certainly played a crucial role in our society, beginning in 1782, the Bald Eagle has been a national symbol; and holds personal meaning to every American. The eagle has been loved and hated throughout time, but has endeavored to remain culturally significant in many ways. As Americans, we have associated this bird with war, and freedom; but why? There is nothing particularly masculine about Bald Eagles, they are poor hunters, and they are scavengers and thieves. Still, we use them to represent our country, and associate only the noblest qualities, even though the bird does not actually possess them. Further research needs to be done to explain why we associate attributes to an animal that does not display the given qualities.
For Additional Reading:
De Meo, A. M. (1994-1995) Access to Eagle and Eagle Parts: Environmental Protection V. Native American Free Exercise of Religion. Hastingsconlawquarterly. Vol. 22:771 pg. 773-776 http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/hascq22&div=25 &id=&page
Gerrard, J. M., & Bortolotti, G. R. (1988). The Bald Eagle: Haunts and Habits of a Wilderness Monarch. Smithsonian Institution.
Grossman, M. L., & Hamlet, J. (1988). Birds of Prey of the World. New York, NY. Bonanza Books.
Lawrence, E. A. (1990) Symbol of a Nation: The Bald Eagle in American Culture. Journal of American Culture. Vol. 13:1 pg. 63 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1542734X.1990.1301_63.x/abstract
Snyder, Noel and Helen. (2006). Raptors of North America: Natural History and Conservation. St. Paul,MN: MBI Publishing Company. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1e/Bald_Eagle_Portrait.jpg