The bald eagle’s surprising history – and its ties to Florida

Jack Davis with Sarge the eagle, a flightless female who lives in Largo, Florida.

Jack Davis with Sarge the eagle, a flightless female who lives in Largo, Florida. Photo Credit: Debbie Burns.

Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida. 

The bald eagle wasn’t the hands-down choice to be our national emblem but today it is widely acknowledged as a perfect symbol of American patriotism. Pulitzer-Prize winning author Jack Davis, an environmental historian, has a new book out about the bird, its surprising past and its resilience – which leads Davis to call it an “environmental success story” we can learn from. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams and James L. Sullivan. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.

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Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

The bald eagle has been our national emblem since 1782 and as such is recognized throughout the world. But despite being well known, there's still much to learn about this majestic bird and our guest today has the stories and other information that I suspect will both delight and surprise you.

Jack E. Davis is a professor of history and the Rothman Family Chair in the Humanities, specializing in environmental history and sustainability studies. He is also the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.” And he has a new book out this month, published by W. W. Norton, which is likely to be just as well received, “The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America's Bird.”

Welcome, Jack.

Jack Davis: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Nicci Brown: It's wonderful to have you here. I'd love to start our conversation by having you read just a short excerpt from the book, if you don't mind.

Jack Davis: Oh, sure. I'd love to. Let me give you a little bit of background on this excerpt. This is 1979 and the bald eagle population is imperiled around the country, primarily the lower 48 states. And it's the beginning of the restoration era when there's a movement afoot to try to restore the population. And this is about one woman's participation in that restoration. Her name is Doris Mager.


Bulging out from between the upper branches of a loblolly pine, a large finger lapped arrangement of sticks formed the familiar aesthetic of an industrious eagle couple. For some unknown reason, the pair had not returned for the 1979 nesting season. Staring up, Doris Mager was aware of the centrality of nests in the lives of bald eagles. Those compositions of meticulous labor, enigmas of intricacy and strength that marry art with utility, are essential to the renewal of life. The identity of few birds is as closely attached to their nest as the bald eagles' is to its. None in North America build larger or stouter ones. The balds’ are emblematic of their species’ resilience. Nests have been a key variable in determining the population's decline and they would be imperative to it revival. Without them, Mager knew, there would be no birds.

Mager was aware of the violent spontaneous weather that frequented Central Florida also, and at the moment dark clouds filled the sky to the west. Standing at the foot of the loblolly, one hand hesitantly on a climbing ladder hanging down from the height of a fire lookout tower, she was intent on spending time in the nativity of the former occupants. Mager had never scaled a tree before, much less in a storm. She reached over and touched an ominous-looking lightning scar running down the tree's trunk to the ground. Pushing ahead of the storm, the wind pulsed, and the green needles trembled in the branches high above. One eyewitness described the tree as “spindly.” Another called it “wind-whipped.”

Jeff Klinkenberg, the outdoor editor for the St. Petersburg Times, is the one who used the word “spindly.” "Here she was," he reflected decades later, "fifty-three years old and climbing a ladder I would not have dared to climb at my age then, thirty."

Before putting herself at the mercy of the swelling wind, Mager tied a red bandana around her head of silver hair, which she had had cut and styled in a new hairdo for the occasion. Owl earrings dangled beside her cheeks, and, retaining the raptor theme, a spread-eagle necklace wreathed her neck.

She wore black jeans, a denim shirt, and gray running shoes. Yet her jogging routine had been inconsistent of late. In relating that detail, she confessed to Klinkenberg, "I've got fat little legs, and I probably shouldn't be that far off the ground at my age."

She slipped into a safety harness secured to an upper branch. Alongside the harness line the grounding cable of a lightning rod chased down the side of the tree. A number of precautions were taken that day, and Mager added one of her own by swallowing a motion sickness pill. "I get airsick and I get seasick," she again confessed to Klinkenberg, "and I'm probably going to get nest sick."

Mager put one foot on a lower rung and followed that with the other on the next rung. Grabbing a third at eye level with both hands, she stared nervously into the tree's rust-colored, scaly bark, and coaxed herself toward a fifty-foot summit. Whenever the wind kicked up, the tree creaked like an old door. When it swung like one, she would pause, grip the ladder tighter, and take a deep breath. She shouted to a friend below, "Get down on your knees and pray, Viola."


Nicci Brown: That's dedication for you. So, she was drawn to the birds to do this, I guess, to draw attention to what was happening to the eagles.

Jack Davis: That's exactly right. She was with the Florida Audubon Society and she had started a raptor rehabilitation center there, which was really in her backyard. And she was trying to raise money to build an aviary at the headquarters of Florida Audubon Society. And she succeeded with the help of others.

Nicci Brown: Okay. So, what drew you to the bald eagle then? We've got her story. I suspect you won't be climbing any trees or will you?

Jack Davis: You know, I wouldn't mind. What I didn't read in here is her view from the top and how spectacular it was and I would love to see that view that the bald eagles have from their nests. They build their nests in the top of tall trees, usually the tallest in the area, because they want to have a good visual of their territory. They also want to see the water around them, where the fish are. That's their primary source of food.

But what drew me to the book is I'm an environmental writer. As you said, I'm an environmental historian, and generally when we reflect on our environmental past, we tend to focus on the grim and the tragic, and I think readers are getting a little overwhelmed by that. So, I wanted to write an environmental success story, and this is one really spectacular story. It has its tragedies. It has its grim moments. But ultimately, it's this wonderful story about the bird and its relationship with us, and how we've changed. The bird hasn't changed, but we've changed.

Nicci Brown: And the eagle appears on the Great Seal of the United States. So, do you know how it came to be selected? Because it has been a journey together, I guess, in many ways.

Jack Davis: It has been a journey. And, of course, as you read, that's in my subtitle. And yes, I do. I devote an entire chapter to how the bald eagle got on the Great Seal of the United States. Developing a seal during the revolution, after America declared its independence and was fighting for it, it sorely needed a national credential on the world stage. And that would be, of course, a seal or a coat of arms. And it took three committees, 14 delegates in Congress along with some consultants and artists, and multiple, multiple proposals and six years to finally come up with the right seal.

The bald eagle was not included until the very end. It was proposed by Charles Thompson, who was secretary of the Continental Congress and really the most powerful man in Congress. And I think he was really a little tired of all these committees not coming up with anything. And so he took upon himself to design the seal. Bald eagles were all over, this is in Philadelphia and they were all over the Eastern seaboard, very visible all the time. And so all he had to do was look out his window or walk down the street, and he would've seen a bald eagle.

And eagles had long been, not bald eagles, but eagles, had long been a part of national heraldry dating back to the ancients. But the bald eagle is an all-American bird. It lives nowhere else but North America. So, Charles Thompson, while perhaps being inspired by those eagles on earlier coats of arms, chose the right one for the U.S. and that was the bald eagle.

Nicci Brown: But it wasn't everyone else's choice, right?

Jack Davis: Well, it depends on whether you believe Benjamin Franklin or not.

Nicci Brown: Okay.

Jack Davis: And many people think that he argued against the bald eagle appearing on the Great Seal or being put on the Great Seal. There's no evidence that he ever did that. He did object to the bald eagle as being a representative, at least in a letter to his daughter that he never apparently sent to her, that he did object to the bald eagle as a national representative. He called it a bird of low morality, a coward, a thief and everything else. And he did compare its morality with the wild turkey, but what he did not do is propose the turkey for the Great Seal of the United States, which many people think he did. I'm not going to tell you who he wanted for the seal because you're going to have to read the book to find out.

Nicci Brown: Okay, that's a good [crosstalk 00:10:01].

Jack Davis: But it's a huge surprise. It knocked me out of my chair when I read it.

Nicci Brown: So, in terms of why he called the bald eagle a coward and a bird of bad morality, what led him to use such terms?

A bald eagle in mid-flight with a fish in its beak.

Bald eagles primarily consume fish. Photo Credit: Justin Bright

Jack Davis: Well, it's interesting because people could call the bald eagle noble and brave in one breath, and then turn around and call it a thieving coward in the next. And, in fact, Franklin did such a thing. The bald eagle is a scavenger, like a vulture, and it also steals from other birds, including other eagles, most notoriously, though, from osprey, which come across as an innocent fishing bird, which I guess, I suppose you can say that. But they're also expert fishers, they're better fishers than bald eagles are. And so bald eagles are smart. They know where to get the food. They let the osprey catch it and then they steal it from them in midair. Right here at Paynes Prairie Preserve, I've seen two bald eagles fight over fish in midair, battle, and that fish go between the two of them five times.

Nicci Brown: Wow. Who ended up winning?

Jack Davis: I don't remember. I think the juvenile. As I recall, it was a juvenile and an adult.

Nicci Brown: And as far as being a coward, I've heard that word used to describe bald eagles. Where did that come from?

Jack Davis: Well, a lot of people called the bald eagle a coward, and that was associated with it being a thief and stealing from other birds. But also, Audubon, who by the way hated the bald eagle, called it a coward because the bald eagle wouldn't sit still and let him shoot it. I mean, I was amazed when I read this passage, he said, "The bird flew off, zigzagging." You know, it didn't stick around to take a bullet like a real man. Now I'm paraphrasing him there. I'm adding my own words, but that's essentially what he's saying.

Nicci Brown: So, what are some of the other things that you were surprised by when you did your work looking more closely at the bald eagle?

Jack Davis: I was surprised by a lot because I didn't know much about bald eagles. I grew up in Florida, in the Tampa Bay Area when the bay was in bad shape ecologically. And so there weren't many birds. There weren't many fish. We didn't see ospreys and we didn't see bald eagles. So, I didn't see my first bald eagle in the wild probably until the 1990s.

And so, when I sat down and write this book, there was just so much to learn. One of the things that surprised me is how much Americans throughout the 19th century and on into the early 20th century, like Audubon, loathed or disliked or even hated the bald eagle, the species itself. They loved the symbol. They loved the image of the bald eagle. They put it on everything, sports teams, uniforms, business logos, and, of course, all across the federal government, and the coins and so forth.

But they didn't like the species itself, because it's a predator bird and they believe that it would fly off with sheep, with calves, and with turkeys and pigs and chickens. A bald eagle cannot lift that much. It can lift a chicken, but it can't lift a sheep. It can't lift a calf. And they were also accused of kidnapping babies. Mothers were warned, "Don't leave your child unattended outdoors, lest a bald eagle fly away with it." And there were all kinds of stories, apocryphal, highly apocryphal stories, about bald eagles kidnapping babies, human babies, and taking them back to their nests. There was even a McGuffey's Reader, which was probably next to the Bible the most read book in America in the 19th century, had a story about a bald eagle stealing a child and taking it back to its nest. And so, a predator like a wolf, like a bear, like a coyote, the bald eagle was a predator that was to be eradicated. So, an eagle seen was an eagle to be shot.

Nicci Brown: They were truly vilified, then.

Jack Davis: Truly vilified. Yes.

Nicci Brown: The eagle has special significance and sacredness for many indigenous people. What did you learn when you were looking into that aspect of their history?

Jack Davis: Yeah, that was also an interesting history to me. The eagle among many native American cultures is a sacred bird. It's a spirit bird, a messenger between the people and their ancestors or the creator. It's a high-flying bird, so it was seen as the bird that would fly close to heaven and could deliver these messages. And their feathers in many native cultures are conduits to that spirit world and extremely important historically and even today important and rituals in native American communities.

And so, they've long been a bird that they’ve sometimes raised, so they could gather their feathers, depending on the native American group. Or they were captured and killed and then plucked. But all in a very ritualistic way and not in hoards, not in hundreds or even tens, but a few birds at a time.

Nicci Brown: And, of course, we went through a period where we almost lost the eagles. Their numbers went down very low in large part because of DDT. They are in many ways a phoenix, if you pardon the pun, where they have come back.

Jack Davis: Twice. So that's happened twice. I talked about how Americans were shooting bald eagles at every opportunity in the 19th century and on into the early 20th century. They brought the bald eagle in the Lower 48 states to the brink of extinction. Alaska, the territory Alaska, had a bounty on bald eagles from 1917 to 1952 and paid bounties on over 120,000 bald eagles during that period.

So, it was a close call in the early 20th century. In 1940, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act to preserve the bald eagle. And then five years later, DDT was released on the market, used in agriculture and commercial applications, but also in the home. Just as the population was poised to come back, DDT had a devastating effect, not only on bald eagles, but on a lot of bird life and fish life.

And the bald eagle population plummeted to the point that in 1963, the nesting population in the Lower 48 was under 500. Now that's compared with probably 300,000 to 500,000 bald eagles that lived North America at the time of European contact.

Nicci Brown: And they've had a resurgence. Where do we see the vast majority of their colonies, or where do they live for the most part?

Jack Davis: They live, as I said earlier, only in North America, so Northern Mexico and throughout the U.S. and Canada. Minnesota has the largest bald eagle nesting population, probably around 10,000, which is pretty phenomenal, largely because there are so many lakes, clean water lakes, with lots of fish up there. But Florida has the second highest bald eagle nesting population, about 1,500. A significant difference between Florida and Minnesota, but still pretty good and better than other states.

And we see a lot of them right here around Alachua County, which is wonderful. I mean, there's some dozen or more nests out at Newnans Lake and Paynes Prairie, you see bald eagles all the time. So, they're healthy across the United States today.

Nicci Brown: There's a lot of difference in terms of temperature and the environment that they're in. Are there variations within the eagles that are found in the north and the south, or pretty much the same, they're just highly adaptable?

Jack Davis: Well, to a point they're highly adaptable. Some scientists will say that there are two subspecies, there's a Northern bald eagle and the Southern bald eagle. And some scientists don't recognize them as subspecies but recognize different gene pools.

So, the bald eagles in the north, in Canada and the northern U.S., tend to be larger and so better equipped for the cold, but not well equipped for the heat of the south. And the bald eagles down here in the Southern states, below the Mason-Dixon, we'll say, tend to be smaller and can take the heat and avian diseases that Northern bald eagles have shown they're not immune to.

But what's interesting about bald eagles is they migrate between breeding season and they go back to the same place every year to breed and nest. They mate for life. They maintain a fidelity to the same nest year after year after year, as long as that nest exists and it isn't blown down in a storm or somebody doesn't come along, cut down the tree, which they're not supposed to. And they'll return. But when they migrate between breeding season, the female will go in her direction, the male will go in his direction. Pretty good idea, perhaps.

Nicci Brown: Right, time away from one another.

Jack Davis: Yes. But some of them will fly long distances. Say, Florida birds. Generally, the juveniles fly longer, farther, will fly to Canada or New England or the upper Midwestern states. And then the northern ones will come south. So, in many cases, southern eagles end up in the territory of northern eagles after they've left and come south, and they more or less switch places.

Nicci Brown: I've heard they're very good parents, too.

Jack Davis: They're extremely loyal parents. There's generally two eggs to a nest. And their domestic instincts are really a model for all of nature and the rest of us. They raise their young with such care, feed them so well that by the time they leave the nest, they leave the area at the end of breeding season, the young are sometimes larger than the parents.

Nicci Brown: Wow. We've spoken about the connection between the eagle and our nation, patriotism. And then we've spoken about the environment and the impact that the environment has had on their well being. So, what are the linkages that you're making here between the eagle, patriotism and environmentalism in this book?

Jack Davis: Well, there are a number of connections and/or linkages. When the United States was still a young republic, it struggled to establish its own identity separate of Europe. But at the same time, it was culturally derivative of Europe. Its styles in art, architecture and literature were influenced by European styles.

But what was distinctive about the United States, what it could hold up as different from Europe, and even superior to Europe was, its natural assets, was nature. Nature added to American exceptionalism. Yeah, I mean, and the Europeans were envious. And I'm not talking about just natural resources. I'm talking about the robustness, the beauty, the vastness of nature in America.

And so, nature was the original source of America's separate identity. And lording over all of that was the bald eagle, this native, this endemic, this bird endemic to North America, with this, as I say, this "Don't tread on me" stare.

Nicci Brown: Right.

Jack Davis: Charles Thompson couldn't have picked a better bird as far as I'm concerned. But then a century later, in the early 20th century, we almost lose the bald eagle, as I mentioned earlier, because we were shooting it, treating it as a common predator that needed to be controlled. And in 1940, a year before Congress went to war against fascist tyranny, it passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, making the argument that it was necessary to preserve the living species behind the symbol, because if we had lost that species, if we'd lost that bird, then it would've been a disgrace to the symbol. It would've undermined the integrity of the symbol.

And today, because of the eagles' restoration, its phenomenal restoration in the late 20th century, today when we see a bald eagle, it still very much symbolizes American patriotism, national strength and courage and unity. But it also has come to symbolize a society that has forged a wiser balance with nature and a more secure future for humanity.

Nicci Brown: You mentioned the connection of Florida having the second most bald eagles in the nation. Are there any other connections with the state and the eagle?

Jack Davis: Oh, I mean, that was another surprise. I just love it, being a Floridian. So, the first person to link DDT to the decline of the bald eagle population, which he did in the 1950s, was a bald-headed, retired banker from Winnipeg who lived in Canada. He retired to Florida when he was 59, just about 60 years old. This is a banker. This is not his scientist. He was not an ornithologist, okay? He was a bird enthusiast, but not a trained scientist.

He started climbing tall pine trees and tagging eaglets. He was the first to do this systematically and he did it for 20 years until age 79. And, of course, he was eyewitness to the decline of the population.

The other is right here in Alachua County in the 1980s. Florida still had a fairly healthy bald eagle population after the DDT scourge, but many other Southern states had no nesting birds. Alabama, Mississippi, for instance, Georgia from time to time, and South Carolina from time to time, and so forth.

And so a plan was spearheaded here at the University of Florida, along with the Sutton Research Center in Oklahoma, to take eggs out of bald eagle nests from a six-county area, North Central Florida, primarily Alachua County, and take those eggs up to the Sutton Center in Oklahoma and incubate them under hens, hatch them, and then move the birds into those other Southern states.

The Florida bald eagle population didn't lose any numbers because both eggs were taken out of the nest early on, and the female would lay another set. And so, this was a five-year program, hugely successful, 275 eggs were taken from Florida. So today, when you see a bald eagle nesting in one of the other Southern states, there's a good chance that is a descendant of a Florida bald eagle. So, to me, Florida bald eagles are heroes.

Nicci Brown: Definitely. One last question for you. What do you hope that people take away from reading this book? What are the main messages you're hoping they're going to get from it?

Jack Davis: One of the main messages that I hope they take away from the book is that we're connected to the same environment that wildlife is. When we do something to help that wildlife, to provide it with a healthy habitat, we're creating a healthy habitat for ourselves. Our quality of life is improved significantly, I think, with the resurgence of the bald eagle. I mean, who doesn't, when you see a bald eagle fly across the sky, who doesn't poke the person next to them get all excited? We all do.

Nicci Brown: Well, congratulations on the book and thank you for the stories that you're telling, and the information that you're sharing with us about this incredible creature.

Jack Davis: My pleasure, and thanks for having me.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you'll tune in next week.

From Florida March 8, 2022