Gliding on prose as majestic as his subject, Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental historian Jack E. Davis conveys the breathtaking splendor of the most famous American bird in The Bald Eagle. This bird’s fierce magnificence elevated it to the status of a national symbol that has dominated American iconography from the founding of the Republic to the present.
As Davis points out in his rich cultural and natural history, no other avian species—indeed, no other animal—has “to the same extreme been the simultaneous object of reverence and recrimination.” Before Europeans colonized North America, somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 bald eagles flew and nested in the wild. In spite of the bald eagle’s appearance on the national seal in 1782, not every national leader embraced the eagle; Benjamin Franklin famously called the eagle “a bird of bad moral character who does not get his living honestly.” The bald eagle’s rapacious ways did not sit well with the ranchers and hunters who decimated the species’ population either. “With ornithologists and popular culture portraying eagles as inveterate kidnappers, the myth became a green light for ranchers and farmers to shoot and poison bald eagles in the name of predator control and economic security,” Davis writes. In the 1960s and 70s, the bald eagle population declined even further because of the widespread use of the chemical pesticide DDT.
However, Davis’ spellbinding story doesn’t end there. In the second half of the book, he points to individuals and organizations that have worked tirelessly to pull the bald eagle back from the brink of extinction and restore its numbers, which are now estimated to be as high as they were before European contact with America. Davis concludes with a stirring paean to the bald eagle’s resilience: “Living for itself rather than for humankind, it pursued the evolutionary will for self-preservation and set an example of what can be.”
The Bald Eagle swoops and soars in a dazzling display of writing, evoking the bald eagle’s majesty as it explores the eagle’s place in American history and legend, as well as its role in cultivating a robust environmental movement.