The bald truth about the (un)bald eagle

Here’s the review I wrote for The Sun of Jack E. Davis’ new about about the American Bald Eagle.

Let’s set the record straight about the American Bald Eagle.

No, it isn’t bald.

No, Ben Franklin didn’t want to replace it on the Great Seal of the United States with a turkey (he wanted to depict Moses).

And no, it doesn’t pluck up human babies and carry them off for dinner.

That last “urban legend” has been both pernicious and persistent.

Indeed, tales of “America’s bird” snatching up lambs, pigs and even infants have since the early days of our republic been used as an excuse for shooting, trapping or poisoning bald eagles.

McGuffey’s Reader, once widely read in American schools, carried an 1844 story about a young girl swept off by an eagle to its nest.

Truth or fiction?

“Every report I found was a second-hand account..somebody told somebody about lambs twice the size of an eagle carried five miles. But five pounds is about the max for a large eagle” to lift off the ground.

This from Jack E. Davis, environmental historian at the University of Florida.

And Davis ought to know. He literally wrote the book on the American Bald Eagle. Or at least the latest one.

“The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey Of America’s Bird,” Davis’ follow up to his Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Gulf: The Making Of An American Sea,” is set to be released on March 1. He will host a book signing event at the Matheson History Museum on March 5.

It is both a treasury of bald eagle eagle trivia (yes, “eagle eyed” is a thing, thanks to “tens of millions more photoreceptor cells” than we mere humans possess), and a comprehensive account of the eagle’s role in American history (yes, a bald named “Old Abe” did accompany Wisconsin soldiers into the Civil War battle of Shiloh and lived to, um, squawk about it).

More importantly, Davis has documented America’s love-hate relationship with the bald eagle. A relationship that twice saw the heroic bird so revered by George Washington and other Founders nearly driven to the brink of extinction. First at the hands of farmers, fishermen and hunters, and later as a result of pesticide poisoning.

Indeed, Davis argues, no other creature, beast or fowl, “has to the same extreme been the simultaneous object of reverence and recrimination” by Americans.

Famed ornithologist John James Audubon himself had no use for the fish-stealing predator, deeming it of “cruel spirit” and thus a “dreaded enemy of the feathered race.”

Turns out that although the bald eagle is an accomplished fisher in its own right, it also loves to startle ospreys into dropping their newly caught fish…and then snatching it up while still in mid-air.

There are heroes and villains aplenty in this book.

One of Davis’ more intriguing accounts is about T. Gilbert Pierson, a native of Alachua County’s Archer, who stubbornly opposed legal protections for the bald eagle as president of the National President of Audubon Societies.

‘It was ironic that an Archer guy who grew up surrounded by all those wonderful long leaf pines, ideal for nesting eagles, would have such contempt for them,” Davis told me.

But for every Pierson there was a Doris Mager, Florida’s eccentric “Eagle Lady.”

A transplant from Connecticut, Mager once spent several days living in an abandoned aerie near Orlando “flapping her arms like an eagle,” in order to raise $6,000 for the cause. Later, at 60, Mager rode a bicycle across the country, stopping frequently along the way to talk to rural youths about why they ought not to shoot eagles with their newly acquired rifles.

Oh, and while Davis’ epic story of the American Bald Eagle spans the centuries and criss-crosses the continent, Gainesville area readers will be interested to learn about how our own little pocket of paradise contributed to the wider restoration of the species after DDT had nearly wiped it out.

Davis calls it “egg recycling,” this story of how University of Florida scientists and students recovered unhatched eggs from local nests and transported them to Oklahoma to help jump-start the species. They even used super glue to mend the occasional cracked egg.

“When you go to Alabama or Mississippi and see a bald eagle it is more than likely a descendent” of one of our home-grown avians, Davis said.

So how’s the American Bald Eagle doing these days? Here’s a couple of fun facts:

One: “When the Eagles “won the Super Bowl in 2018, Pennsylvania had three hundred nests,” Davis writes. “When the first Super Bowl was played fifty-one years earlier, Pennsylvania had none.”

And two: Legal protections for the species are so inviolate that the federal government now maintains a facility in Colorado for the sole purpose of dismembering deceased eagles and “distributing feathers, wings, feet, heads, and whole bodies to Indians for use in religious and cultural ceremonies.”

Who does that exactly? Let’s just say he’s fondly known as the “mother plucker.”

Listen, unless you’re a T. Gilbert Pierson-style curmudgeon, you’ve got to admire the sheer pluck and staying power of America’s bird. Davis’ account of this magnificent predator’s fight to live side by side with its fellow Americans is a great read.

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