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What Is the National Bird of the USA?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated: May 17, 2024

The American bald eagle became the unofficial bird of the USA in 1782, the same year the national seal depicting images of the species was adopted. At the time, the American bald eagle represented the only eagle native to the North American continent. It was chosen for its appearance of strength, freedom, and longevity after intense debate that lasted several years.

Founding father Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey as the national bird of the USA. He considered the bald eagle lazy because it took food other birds caught, saying it represented poor moral character. Franklin also believed the bald eagle lacked courage because it often suffered attacks by smaller birds. The turkey was more respectable and exhibited courage, Franklin believed.

After George Washington became the first U.S. president in 1789, the American bald eagle officially became the national bird of the USA. It has since appeared on stamps, paper money, and coins. On the official national seal, the bald eagle is shown with its wings spread with an olive branch held in talons on one foot and 13 arrows grasped by the other foot. Thirteen red and white stripes, along with 13 stars, appear on a shield covering the bald eagle’s breast. A banner with the words E Pluribus Unum, Latin that means out of many, one, is clutched in the eagle’s beak.

The national bird of the USA lived in great numbers in the 1700s, until farming and the westward movement of settlers began destroying its habitat and food supply. The Bald Eagle Act of 1940 aimed to protect dwindling numbers of the species. Recovery efforts were hampered until certain pesticides were banned. Scientists discovered these pesticides produced thin shells on eagle eggs that shattered easily or never hatched.

By 1963, only about 400 nesting pairs of bald eagles remained in North America. The Endangered Species Act and some pesticide bans became vital to preserving the national bird of the USA. This species was taken off the endangered list in 2000, but remained designated as threatened and was protected under serious penalties on those convicted of killing, capturing, or harming bald eagles.

The national bird of the U.S.A. can live up to 35 years in the wild and 50 years in captivity. It is noted for its immense wingspan, which might reach up to 9 feet (2.7 meters). A bald eagle can fly 30 miles per hour (48.2 kilometers per hour) while soaring and up to 100 miles per hour (160.9 kilometers per hour) when diving to capture prey. It feeds on fish, small animals, and carrion. Eagles mate for life, and year after year they use the same nest, which can reach up to 9 feet (2.7 meters) across.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon1002657 — On Jan 17, 2020

The story about Franklin advocating for the Turkey is false. While he said it would be a better choice, when tasked with ideas for the official seal, he advocated for Moses with his hand outstretched over the sea. I believe the story about wanting the turkey seems to have come from letter to his daughter.

By Rotergirl — On Jan 24, 2014

Fortunately, the bald eagle populations have rebounded and birders can now see this incredible animal in its native nesting areas on a regular basis.

These birds really are spectacular in flight, and it's a treat to see one as a casual observer.

I live near a wildlife refuge on a river, and when bald eagles are spotted around, people flock to the observation building to get a glimpse of this magnificent bird. Maybe the wild turkey does have more admirable qualities than the bald eagle, but a turkey certainly doesn’t inspire the kind of awe and even reverence that a swooping bald eagle does.

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