Sunday may be Father's Day, but it's also the anniversary of the day when our forefathers finally agreed on the bald eagle as the national symbol.
June 20 has been proclaimed National Bald Eagle Day. Two hundred years earlier, the Continental Congress officially adopted the bald eagle as the central figure in the Great Seal.
But it didn't come easy. Beauracracy and red tape abounded in the government, then as now.
Soon after the Declaration of Independence was signed July 4, 1776, the Congress set three of the foremost foundling fathers -- Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Ben Franklin -- at the task of working up a rough symbol for the new nation.
They disagreed from the start: Jefferson wanted to show the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness. Franklin favored Moses parting the Red Sea. Adams wanted to show Hercules being tempted by a lazy sloth and a maiden representing virtue.
A painter, Pierre Eugene Du Simitiere, was sought to ease the deadlock. His contribution was E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one). But still no seal. The task was assigned to a second committee, and finally a third. But a consultant to the last group, William Barton, developed the first eagle prototype. Congress rejected it.
Finally Charles Thomas, secretary of Congress, was told to come up with something. His had an eagle as its focal point. Barton took over from there and drew a polished, finished product. A relieved Congress officially accepted the Great Seal on June 20, 1782, six years after it was first requested. After deadline and, probably, over budget.
The final version has been modified over the years, with the last adjustments made in 1904. But the main components have remained the same: a red-white-and-blue shield; a cluster of 13 stars for the original colonies; olive branches in the right talons, symbolizing peace; arrows in the left, indicating willingness to fight for freedom.
The new Great Seal was widely applauded, but not by Franklin. He preferred the turkey over the eagle, and still was grousing about it seven years later:
"For my own part, I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly . . . The turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird . . . He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards who should presume to invade his yard . . ."
The U.S. was hardly the first nation to use the eagle as a symbol of strength, courage, freedom and military might. Cave drawings of eagles have been traced to the paleolithic era in Europe. And likenesses of the bird have been found in ancient Greek and Roman ruins and on their coins and medals.
Modern manufacturers use the eagle as a symbol of quality and class. It adorns a brand of bourbon, a type of tire, a beer label, doorknockers, a football team, a popular rock band . . .
But all the while we were glorifying our eagles, we were killing them off. An estimated 25,000 bald eagles in the country in 1782 dwindled to about a thousand in 1970. America was about to make its national symbol extinct.
Help first came as early as 1940, when the Bald Eagle Protection Act was approved. It now levies a fine up to $5,000 and imprisonment up to one year for anyone caught killing a bald or golden eagle.
The most significant step in aiding the eagle's comeback, however, occurred when DDT and other pesticides were banned in 1972. Beginning in 1976, primary bald eagle nesting areas such as the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and Florida started to show considerable population increases.
The Chesapeake Bay region had only about 20 nesting pairs in 1970; by the end of 1981, 93 pairs were nesting. Now the region is considered among the top bald eagle- producing areas in the country.
According to the Raptor (bird of prey) Information Center, a division of the National Wildlife Federation, each nesting pair of adult bald eagles generally produces only a single egg per year. Last year, 63 percent of these eggs hatched and reached a banding age of seven weeks, compared to 52 percent in 1977, according to a five-year project report issued by the center.
Before the pesticide ban, the probability of eggs producing eaglets was slim: while adult eagles would not necessarily die from eating pesticide-ridden food, they concentrated levels of contaminants that led "to embryos that aren't alive or have some kind of deformity," according to Gary Taylor of Maryland's Wildlife Administration.
"In some cases, the mechanism for producing the eggshell is affected so that the eggs aren't as thick as they should be and hatch prematurely," a major factor in the decline of the eagle, "along with the disturbance or loss of nesting habitat, and the shooting of eagles," Taylor said.
In the Bay ragion, as elswhere, the bald eagle's greatest enemy is man. Wildlife biologists estimate that more than a hundred American eagles are shot each year in this country; Taylor said some people think they're just shooting at a large bird, while others are fully aware of they're aiming at.
Last year a farmer in Washington State was convicted of killing a bald eagle and fined $2,500. He was caught because the eagle was wearing a radio transmitter as part of a study. Wildlife officials traced the signal to the man's property.
Power lines also take their toll of eagles, either by collision or electrocution, which makes it all the more unusual when the Chesapeake's newest nest was found recently at PEPCO's Chalk Point power plant at Aquasco in Prince George's county.
Plant workers say that for at least the last three years they've seen a pair of eagles cruise the skies above the plant's 230,000- volt transmission lines. Last fall, for the first time, workers noticed a large nest high in a tulip popular tree between the power lines and a warm-water discharge canal.
The Maryland Wildlife Administration included the nest in its annual spring aerial survey. In April, biologists were delighted to see an adult eagle "in an incubating/brooding posture." After allowing several weeks for the suspected egg to hatch and the chick to mature, a group of biologists from the Raptor Information Center returned to the site May 27. A specialist climbed the tree and found a seven-week old chick, which he banded on both legs.
It's the first known active nest in Prince George's County in at least 20 years, and its proximity to a busy power plant and potentially lethal power lines has baffled local biologists.
"It's an indication that you've got suitable habitat there," remarks Ken D'Loughy, one of the biologists who visited the nest. "We were totally surprised by the presence of the nest at the plant because it wouldn't be an area we would normally look at in searching for new nests."
Taylor said availability of food probably attracted the eagles to the site. "Basically, the birds saw what was on the ground and decided the benefits of building there outweighed the benefits of not building there."
Bald eagles are primarily fish-eaters, and a power plant's warm-water discharge canal is a favored hangout for many species of fish. Catfish and carp are the eagle's preferred food, although local eagles also often dine on mallard ducks, diamondback terrapins and muskrat. But they occasionally become gourmets -- remnants of chickens, quail, rabbit and woodchuck were found, as well as one cat and a goat.
Hunting eagles will perch and wait for an osprey to drag a fish from the water, then steal it, or wait until the osprey loses its grasp and snatch the fish in midair. Eagles are not above feeding on dead or dying fish.
Although ominous in appearance (three feet tall with a wingspan of up to eight feet), eagles are shy and retiring. When a bander climbs to a nest the parent birds will swoop around and complain, but have not been known to attack a climber in this region.
Most nests in this region are located in tall loblolly pines, and 92 percent are on private property. The best bets for bald-eagle- watching are the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, Maryland and the Caledon State Park in King George County, Virginia. The Raptor Information Center's report says that more than 40 different bald eagles were seen near the Caledon area on a single day last July.
After the spring and summer mating season, adult eagles wander throughout North America: Birds banded near the Chesapeake have been found in Alabama and Canada. They also winter regularly in one area but return to the same nest site year after year. The nests are repaired and enlarged each season, and some reach mammoth propoptions. The largest known in our region measures seven feet wide by 10 feet deep.
The newly fledged eaglets are on their own at summer's end. They, too, will wander, usually for five years, until they acquire the white head and tail that mark sexual maturity. The birds mate for life, and may live for 50 years in captivity. Taylor says 12 to 15 years is the norm for wild birds.
In Laurel, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center is contributing to the eagle's increasing numbers by placing three-week-old, cage-raised eagles in nests where adult pairs have been unsuccessful.
Another method, "hacking," is used when a suitable nest and foster parents are not available. Young eagles spend several weeks in high towers, where they are fed but still have the freedom to learn to hunt on their own. The feedings are gradually decreased as the eagle gets more proficient at its own foraging.
Although bald eagles are listed as endangered in 43 of the "lower 48" states, they are staging a spectacular comeback, thanks to the pesticide ban and stepped-up adoption and release programs.
Reflects Taylor: "It's taken a lot of time, money and effort. We haven't won the game yet, but things are starting to show some improvement."