One Tough Bird

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.


  1. Barb - July 31, 2020 10:13 am

    What a great encounter, seeing bald eagles and the bright young John. Don’t miss a drive out to St John Island to stand beneath the grand Angel Oak! It too is extraordinary. I’m enjoying Charleston again through you. We’ve only visited twice, but I hope to visit again. If Jamie enjoys unusual jewelry, Dacuba’s creates lovely pieces capturing the beautiful iron gate designs from throughout the city.

  2. Ann - July 31, 2020 10:32 am

    …so do I…🇺🇸

  3. Penn Wells - July 31, 2020 11:17 am

    I’m not a birder, but I learned on a trip with one to one of Georgia’s barrier islands that the Great Horned Owl has the most talon strength. As a matter of fact, she told us, that if the GHO wants a nest built by a Bald Eagle, he/she will just takes it. Something about that doesn’t seem right, for all the reasons you listed. Interesting though, huh? At least I thought so!

  4. MR - July 31, 2020 12:31 pm

    Very informative! We have some land near Guntersville State Park in North Alabama and have eagles in our area. I’m always trying to figure out if I’m looking at a buzzard, a hawk or an eagle when I look up to the sky.Thanks to little John, ( and you) I know a little bit more what to look for. Enjoy your get away in Charleston!

  5. Martha Owens - July 31, 2020 12:35 pm

    A very majestic bird. Thanks for the reminder John and Sean.

  6. Jan - July 31, 2020 12:53 pm

    If our national bird can claw its way back from near extinction, maybe our country can do the same. God willing, we will overcome our current chaos and soar again!

  7. Bob from Brierfield - July 31, 2020 1:00 pm

    A fantastic start to my day, thanks to Sean and John. Hope we all can learn from the perseverance of this tough bird

  8. GaryD - July 31, 2020 1:07 pm

    DDT caused a lot of problems for a lot of animals. Banning it saved lots of beautiful creatures.

  9. Annak - July 31, 2020 2:34 pm

    Sean, if you are near the South Carolina or Georgia coast in late fall or winter, be sure to see the marsh when it has turned golden, then brown. It has been likened to the prairies of the American west, but has a magic of its own that can be found nowhere else.

  10. Gary Brookins - July 31, 2020 4:25 pm

    We live in Richmond, Virginia, just about a mile from the James River, and it’s not unusual to see a bald eagle or two soaring near our house. In the 1960s, the eagle population on the James was down to zero. But now, thanks to the diligence of conservationists, ornithologists and government programs, they are back, and as of last year, there were 302 breeding pair on the James River. Beautiful birds!

  11. Susan Ellzey - July 31, 2020 5:06 pm

    Makes me want to cheer for the bald eagle! They may be down but they are never out❣️

  12. Linda Moon - July 31, 2020 5:11 pm

    Beautiful. I “saw” Charleston again today. You represented it eloquently in this story of beauty, strength, and hope. John is a really smart kid. As a teacher and counselor of some kids who had tough times too young, my lesson plan would be what you said, Writer: Never Give Up. You represent many of those kids with your survival of hard childhood times. Keep soaring, Sean!

  13. Becky Souders - July 31, 2020 5:37 pm

    I think, perhaps, it’s John’s BIG heart. Thanks for the lessons today, Sean.

  14. MAM - July 31, 2020 6:46 pm

    The most moving time that I ever saw a bald eagle, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen quite a few in my long life, was at a Veteran’s Day commemoration at our nearby national cemetery. During the ceremony, a bald eagle flew over the more than 100 folks gathered there. Somebody pointed up in the sky and we all looked. Wow! What a stirring moment.

  15. Steve Winfield [Lifer] - July 31, 2020 8:54 pm

    I once saw one catch a large mouth bass swimming in the Black Warrior River. He came back up a couple hundred feet in the air & the fish was trying its best to get loose. I’m guessing he weighed 10 lbs +. The eagle dropped him & it made a big splash. Eagle made a huge circle then came back down like a military jet. Grabbed the bass a second time & flew off over the tree tops. Whole thing took maybe 10 minutes.
    One of things you remember forever.

  16. Carol - August 1, 2020 12:31 am

    Love this piece! As an Auburn fan, I can relate to the feeling when watching the bald eagle in flight. At each of our home football games, the eagle soars around the stadium and it gives me chills. Every. Single. Time. Majestic creatures! I’m so very grateful that they were saved💙🧡

  17. Sandra - August 1, 2020 1:17 am

    That is one awesome story
    One of your best. Thanks

  18. mountainboy - August 2, 2020 7:48 pm

    Sean, just found your site, great writing, thanks for yr work. … a trip up the inside passage heading up to AK. More bald eagles than can be counted. I hitchhiked down from Anchorage thru Alaska in the 80’s, mooched a ride from Ray, a italian dude heading to Philly, the guy ended up being my long lost twin brother (drunk every nite on the ferry, way fun, nothing is better than getting drunk on the top floor of a ferry at night), he ended up dropping me off at my folks door in Idaho. Ray was good people. Best hitchhike trip I had. Go see the eagles, it is off the scale.

  19. jstephenw - August 2, 2020 10:05 pm

    Thanks again Sean. As a South Carolinian, and a Southerner, I really appreciate all you do to keep our spirits up. Tell Jaime I am sending this column to her cousin Jim.


Leave a Comment