CHARLESTON—Today I hiked into the woods to see a South Carolinaian salt marsh just outside of the city. And it’s stunning.
The cordgrass stretches backward to the barren horizon, poking from the saltwater like green whiskers. A white heron is hunting for breakfast.
And just when the scene couldn’t be more Carolinian, I see a bald eagle flying overhead.
The distant bird glides above the world, moving on an almost imperceptible air current, turning circles.
“You can tell it’s an eagle,” says John (age 11), pointing at the sky. “See how his wings are flat, instead of a V shape?”
John is wearing a sun hat,
a COVID mask, and gobs of sunscreen. He is a bird fanatic. He hands me his binoculars so I can watch the eagle ride the Atlantic breeze.
John goes on: “Most people see soaring birds and automatically think they’re eagles. But they’re usually vultures or some kinda other soaring bird. When you see a dihedral wing shape, it’s not an eagle.”
Dihedral? Who is this kid?
It’s hard to believe bald eagles almost disappeared from this earth. Especially since they’re the quintessential American symbol. But isn’t it always the same tragic story with us humans? Sometimes we ruin the things we love.
Over the years, hunters killed lots of bald eagles. Commercial pesticide usage killed even more. North Americans were wiping out bald eagles by the shipload.
By the 1970s there were an estimated 220 eagles left on the continent. And even worse, nobody could figure out what to do about it.
Zoologists started touring grade schools with bald eagles, simply so children could get a final glimpse of the national bird before the species vanished.
“Eagles are raptors,” says John. “They’re SUPER good at surviving. I’ve even seen them eat snakes before. I love it when they eat snakes.”
But eagles weren’t surviving. Fifty years ago there were only 13 pairs of bald eagles left in South Carolina. The situation was dire, and the damage seemed irreversible. Extinction can happen fast.
“The coolest thing about baldies,” John says, “is that they’re a totally American bird.”
He’s right. Baldies have seven close relatives around the world—the African fish eagle, the golden eagle, etc. But the bald eagle is only found in North America.
Ironically, Benjamin Franklin hated the idea of using the bald eagle as a national symbol. It’s a myth that Franklin wanted a turkey as America’s bird, but it’s not too far from the truth. In a famous letter to his daughter, old Ben admitted that he didn’t think bald eagles had very good manners.
And they don’t. A bald eagle is not your prim and proper little canary. It will get food however it can. Even if it involves stealing, or fighting. And in fact a bald eagle’s diet consists mostly of food it fights for, sometimes it claws food from the beaks of ospreys, herons, mallards, or whatever else.
Benjamin Franklin might have disliked them, but you can’t convince John they aren’t the greatest birds ever.
And I have to agree. When these raptors take to the sky, it will move you. It’s as though you’re seeing a moment so holy that humans shouldn’t be allowed to see it.
“They swim, too,” says John, who ought to be hired by the South Carolina Conservation Coalition. This kid is a volume of knowledge. “I’ve seen a bald eagle swim, on the internet, you should look it up sometime.”
“I’ll do that,” I say.
John points to another eagle, flying in the distance. Now we see two bald eagles. I’m thinking this is pretty rare, but John says no, it’s not that rare since bald eagles mate for life.
“That’s his wife,” says Johns
I ask how he knows the difference between the two genders.
“Girl birds are WAY bigger than boy birds.” Then he laughs until he snorts. John’s comedic timing needs a little work.
I can’t help but remember when I was in grade school and a zoologist visited our gymnasium with a bald eagle. He told us that these magnificent birds were going extinct, and would likely be gone before we hit adulthood. I’ll never forget how this broke our childhood hearts.
Our class formed a single-file line to see the proud bird’s hooked beak, thick talons, and linen-white head up close. The bird watched us with sharp eyes as though it were smarter than we were. And in my case it was.
We all believed it would probably be the last time American schoolkids laid eyes on something so sacred, and that this might very well be the end of a species.
But it wasn’t the end.
Despite how close bald eagles came to extermination, they did something nobody expected. They came back. Today, there are about 880 bald eagles in South Carolina. In North America there are more than 15,000. And that number is still rising.
There’s a lesson here, I just don’t know what it is. John probably does.
Maybe John would tell you that the bald eagle proved everyone wrong when, in 2007, it was taken off the endangered species list, thanks to the work of conservationists. Or he might tell you that our American bird clawed its way back to life, even in the face of annihilation and hard times. That it had the audacity not to lie down and die.
The magnificent bird lives again, not just on dollar bills, but in salt marshes, in Purple Mountains Majesty, and in John’s little heart.
“I think Ben Franklin was wrong,” says John. “I think the bald eagle is a pretty good bird to represent America.”
So do I, John. So do I.