White-headed Eagle

The figure of this noble bird is well known throughout the civilized world, emblazoned as it is on our national standard, which waves in the breeze of every clime, bearing to distant lands the remembrance of a great people living in a state of peaceful freedom. May that peaceful freedom last for ever!

The great strength, daring, and cool courage of the White-headed Eagle, joined to his unequalled power of flight, render him highly conspicuous among his brethren. To these qualities did he add a generous disposition towards others, he might be looked up to as a model of nobility. The ferocious, overbearing, and tyrannical temper which is ever and anon displaying itself in his actions, is, nevertheless, best adapted to his state, and was wisely given him by the Creator to enable him to perform the office assigned to him.

The flight of the White-headed Eagle is strong, generally uniform, and protracted to any distance, at pleasure. Whilst travelling, it is entirely supported by equal easy flappings, without any intermission, in as far as I have observed it, by following it with the eye or the assistance of a glass. When looking for prey, it sails with extended wings, at right angles to its body, now and then allowing its legs to hang at their full length. Whilst sailing, it has the power of ascending in circular sweeps, without a single flap of the wings, or any apparent motion either of them or of the tail; and in this manner it often rises until it disappears from the view, the white tail remaining longer visible than the rest of the body. At other times, it rises only a few hundred feet in the air, and sails off in a direct line, and with rapidity. Again, when thus elevated, it partially closes its wings, and glides downwards for a considerable space, when, as if disappointed, it suddenly checks its career, and resumes its former steady flight. When at an immense height, and as if observing an object on the ground, it closes its wings, and glides through the air with such rapidity as to cause a loud rustling sound, not unlike that produced by a violent gust of wind passing amongst the branches of trees. Its fall towards the earth can scarcely be followed by the eye on such occasions, the more particularly that these falls or glidings through the air usually take place when they are least expected.

. . .

The White-headed Eagle is seldom seen alone, the mutual attachment which two individuals form when they first pair seeming to continue until one of them dies or is destroyed. They hunt for the support of each other, and seldom feed apart, but usually drive off other birds of the same species. They commence their amatory intercourse at an earlier period than any other land bird with which I am acquainted, generally in the month of December. At this time, along the Mississippi, or by the margin of some lake not far in the interior of the forest, the male and female birds are observed making a great bustle, flying about and circling in various ways, uttering a loud cackling noise, alighting on the dead branches of the tree on which their nest is already preparing, or in the act of being repaired, and caressing each other. In the beginning of January incubation commences. I shot a female, on the 17th of that month, as she sat on her eggs, in which the chicks had made considerable progress.

. . .

Before steam navigation commenced on our western rivers, these Eagles were extremely abundant there, particularly in the lower parts of the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the adjoining streams. I have seen hundreds while going down from the mouth of the Ohio to New Orleans, when it was not at all difficult to shoot them. Now, however, their number is considerably diminished, the game on which they were in the habit of feeding, having been forced to seek refuge from the persecution of man farther in the wilderness. Many, however, are still observed on these rivers, particularly along the shores of the Mississippi.

In concluding this account of the White-headed Eagle, suffer me, kind reader, to say how much I grieve that it should have been selected as the Emblem of my Country. The opinion of our great Franklin on this subject, as it perfectly coincides with my own, I shall here present to you. “For my part,” says he, in one of his letters, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly; you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labour of the Fishing-Hawk; and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him, and takes it from him. With all this injustice, he is never in good case, but, like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. Besides, he is a rank coward: the little King Bird, not bigger than a Sparrow, attacks him boldly, and drives him out of the district. He is, therefore, by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America, who have driven all the King Birds from our country; though exactly fit for that order of knights which the French call Chevaliers d’Industrie.”

Excerpted from The Birds of America, published in sections between 1827 and 1838.

Leave a Comment

More In This Section

Poll question: How comfortable are you with spotting scopes? »

Taken from his new book, <em>Bird Homes and Habitats</em>, <em>BWD</em> editor Bill Thompson, III, profiles 11 common North American birds and their unique nests.

Poll question: Have you spied any nests in your backyard? »

Poll question: Have You Introduced Someone to Birding This Spring? »

American goldfinch at nyjer seed feeder. Photo by T. Smith.

Poll question: How often do you clean your feeders? »

Ruby-throated hummingbird (male). Photo by Bill Thompson, III

Poll question: How many hummingbirds have you seen in your yard this year? »

A bald eagle soars through the skies over Homer, Alaska. Photo by Arnie Berger

Poll Question: Vote for the National Bird! »

Common Nighthawk (Photo: Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren / Wikimedia)

Don't Overlook These Summer Birds »

Hummingbirds don’t drink water, but their primary calorie intake is sugar in liquid form: nectar.

Poll question: Do you intentionally landscape your yard to attract birds? »

What is the thing that is the most magnetically attractive to your birds? Is it a special feeder or food? A water feature? We'd love to show some of our readers' best backyard attractants. Share yours via our website galleries.  Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Today's poll question: Do you have water features in your yard? »

Today's Poll Question: Have you attended or are you planning to attend a virtual birding festival? »

Young birder with binoculars. Photo by Bill Thompson, III.

Today's poll question: At what age did you become a birder? »

Poll question: How comfortable are you identifying fall warblers? »

Few bird watchers can resist stopping and watching when a white-breasted nuthatch appears in the backyard. Photo by G. McGarry.

Today's Poll Question: What apps do you like to use while birding? »

Poll question: Thanksgiving Tradition »

William Gorman, who lives in a wooded area near Albany, New York, rakes up acorns and saves them to feed wild turkeys. The birds are such regular visitors that he has experimented with their food preferences, also offering cracked corn, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, rice, and more.

Poll Question: What Are You Most Grateful For? »

A red-breasted nuthatch visits a backyard suet feeder. Photo by Shutterstock.

Poll Question: Unexpected Backyard Visitors? »

Bald eagle (adult). Photo by Wikimedia.

Poll Question: Have you seen a bald eagle in the wild? »

Poll Question: How many woodpecker species have you seen in your yard? »

Woodpeckers: The Vertical Birds »

From left to right: Nyjer seed, peanuts, millet, and cracked corn.

Poll question: What do you feed the birds in your yard? »

Snow buntings visit a backyard feeding station. Photo by Edward Bryenton.

Poll question: How Do You Help Birds in Bad Weather? »

American woodcock, photo by Wikimedia Commons

Poll question: Have you ever seen or heard an American woodcock? »

Poll question: When do you put up your hummingbird feeder? »

Wilson's warbler. Photo by Robin L. Edwards.

Poll question: Spring Migration Early This Year? »

BWD contributor Julie Zickefoose discovers a fast and easy recipe for feeding hummingbirds! Photo by Bill Thompson, III.

Poll question: Do you have hummingbird feeders? »

Optics expert Ben Lizdas considers the costs and benefits of Porro vs. roof-prism binoculars, various objective lens sizes and magnification, and more, to help readers decide which is the best binocular for their needs and comfort. Photo by Bill Thompson, III.

Poll Question: Have you ever participated in a Christmas Bird Count before? »

Birder with binoculars. Photo by Bill Thompson, III.

Poll Question: How Many Binoculars Do You Own? »

A Canada jay pauses to rest in the fir trees of Mount Ranier State Park, Washington. Photo by Walter Siegmund / Wikimedia.

North America’s 10 Most Interesting Birds »

Poll Question: Do You Belong to a Local Bird Club? »

Finding Birds in Winter »

Poll Question: Do you listen to podcasts about birding and conservation? »

Squirrels are a common pest at bird feeders. In our tips below, we suggest ways to deal with the furry menace. Photo by Sandra Myers.

Poll Question: Do You Intentionally Feed Squirrels? »

A Robin Needs Three Snows on Its Tail Before It’s Truly Spring »

BWD field editor, naturalist, and author Julie Zickefoose hangs a new hummingbird feeder in her yard.

Poll Question: How Many Bird Feeders Do You Have in Your Yard? »

Poll Question: Which of these bird call mnemonics is your favorite? »

American goldfinch at nyjer seed feeder. Photo by T. Smith.

Poll Question: How would you describe your bird identification skills? »

Contributors Brian L. Sullivan, Marshall J. Iliff, and Christopher L. Wood provide an overview of eBird, launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.

Poll question: Do You Participate in eBird? »

The bald eagle's adult plumage, which everyone recognizes, is attained in the fourth year of the bird's life and replaced by identical feathers from then on.

How to Identify Bald Eagles, Young and Old »

Warbler watchers look up until we contract it: Warbler neck.
The neck becomes stiff and sore. It's a small price to pay for seeing such a beautiful bird. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Warbler Neck »

Blue Jay: Backyard Enigma »

Carbonated Warbler, a mystery bird painted and described by John James Audubon in the early 1800s.

Carbonated Warbler »

Chewink, now called Eastern Towhee. Illustration by John James Audubon.

Chewink »

Canada Jays, now called Gray Jays. Illustration by John Gerrard Keulemans.

Canada Jay »

Cherry-Birds, now called Cedar Waxwings. Illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

Cherry-Bird »

Louisiana Heron, now called the Tricolored Heron. Illustration by John James Audubon.

Louisiana Heron »

Frog Hawk, now called the Northern Harrier. Illustration by John James Audubon.

Frog Hawk »

Black and White Creeper, now called the Black-and-white Warbler. Illustration by John James Audubon.

Black and White Creeper »

Poll Question: Will you travel outside the continental US in 2020 to experience birds and nature? »

Subscribe & Save!

ONE YEAR (6 ISSUES) of Bird Watcher's Digest magazine
GET FREE AND INSTANT ACCESS to our digital edition
SAVE 33% off newsstand prices
PAY ONE LOW PRICE of $19.99!
Scroll Up