After considerable thought, Thomson described and sketched out a design of an eagle rising with a 13-striped shield on its chest. In its feet it clutched an olive branch and arrows. In its bill, the eagle held a scroll with the words “E Pluribus Unum” on it. This design was selected. The original eagle sketch was not great; the eagle looked a bit chicken-like and had droopy wings. Fortunately, the artwork was improved so the eagle’s wings stretched upward. The die for the Great Seal was made.
Although you have probably heard that Ben Franklin argued for the Wild Turkey to be the symbol of the United States, he did so after the Bald Eagle had been chosen. In a letter to his daughter in 1784, he wrote that the Bald Eagle is “a Bird of bad moral Character” and that it did not get its living honestly, preferring to steal fish from the Osprey. Franklin went on to write that the turkey is “a much more respectable Bird” and therefore a better representative of our country.
But the Bald Eagle had won, and we have had the eagle as our emblem since 1782. I think most Americans are quite happy with that. Nonetheless, Oberholser, in his The Bird Life of Texas (1971), noted that ever since that year, “Americans have been doing their best to exterminate both the winner and the runner-up.”
The Wild Turkey was hunted without regulation well into the 1900s. Its numbers were reduced drastically by hunting and by severe habitat loss. However, by the middle of the century, active restoration projects were in place for the turkey.
Likewise, a federal law giving “complete protection” to the Bald Eagle was passed in 1940. Unfortunately, the law was widely ignored. Eagles were routinely shot and trapped on the off chance that one might kill a chicken or attack livestock.
Just when people were coming around to the idea of protecting the Bald Eagle, in the 1950s, another factor came into play. Pesticide usage was soaring. DDT, in particular, was piling up in our waters. Fish stored the DDT (as DDE) in their fatty tissues. Animals eating the fish concentrated the pesticide in their tissues. Predators, at the top of the food chain, had the highest concentrations.
High levels of DDE interfere with reproduction, especially in birds. The DDE damaged egg production in many species. Bald Eagles affected by the chemical begin laying defective, thin-shelled eggs. These weak eggs were crushed by the incubating adult. No offspring meant that the population plummeted. Southern Bald Eagles were so reduced in numbers that, by 1971, there were only four nests in the state of Texas.
In other words, they were almost gone.
It took a ban on DDT, habitat restoration, public sympathy and even captive breeding programs to bring back the Bald Eagle. Perhaps also, the damming of many of the rivers in Texas helped. The newly-formed lakes provided prime habitat for Bald Eagles. Not only were there lots of fish for the birds to feed on, nesting spots were abundant. Large trees and cliffs ringed the lakes.
Aerial surveys of the trees surrounding Texas lakes were begun in 1981. Flying just below the tree tops, in and out of coves, and along limestone cliffs, required intrepid pilots and sturdy observers. It was not easy work. Many of those observers, if they could stand the conditions on the surveys, would have been great candidates for the astronaut program! These surveys documented a rise in the number of nesting Bald Eagles. Year by year, there were more of the birds breeding in Texas. Gradually, the breeding range of Bald Eagles inched further and further southward.
In the fall of 2011, a pair of Bald Eagles flew over the residence of Joel and Vicki Simon, who live on the shores of Lake Corpus Christi. The Simons watched the birds and soon a nest was discovered. It could hardly be overlooked. It was massive! Eagle nests are six feet across and more than three feet deep. It was situated in a tall oak near the north end of the lake on private land. This big nest was big news for birders!
The eagles were nesting again in South Texas. This nest was in Live Oak County. Some biologists say this is the southernmost Bald Eagle nest ever in the state of Texas. Certainly, it is the first in more than 50 years.
Sadly, this Live Oak County nesting failed in early February 2012. A freak storm with high winds and hail came through. The parent birds were startled off the nest, and the eggs (or tiny chicks) were killed. The eagles abandoned the nest and were not seen again.
That is, not until early October of 2012. The Simons first saw an eagle perched near the old nest. A week later, a second eagle arrived. Eagles mate for life and, year after year, return to the same nest. They spruce up the nest with a few new sticks and start again. It seems we again have Bald Eagles nesting in Live Oak County!
So far, everything is going well for the eagle family. As of this week, at least one healthy chick is being fed regularly by the parents. Joel Simon thinks from the amount of fish being brought to the nest, that there are actually two chicks! Wouldn’t it be great if two eaglets fledged this spring?