The bald eagle's status as a national symbol goes all the way back to its 1782 appearance on the United States Great Seal. The Continental Congress tasked Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams with designing the new nation's official seal shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. However, the three Founding Fathers, as well as two subsequent committees, were unable to provide an acceptable design.
The work of all three committees was transferred to Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress, in mid-June 1782. Thomson selected the best components from the many designs and increased the prominence of the eagle—which had been proposed by artistically gifted Pennsylvania lawyer William Barton in a design presented by the third committee. (Eagles have been regarded as a symbol of strength since ancient times; Roman legions adopted the bird as their symbol.)
Thomson also advocated replacing the little white eagle in Barton's design with an American bald eagle, which Congress authorized on June 20, 1782. (Contrary to mythology, there is no proof that Ben Franklin objected to the bald eagle's selection and advocated for the turkey, although he did label the bald eagle "a bird of bad moral character" in a 1784 letter to his daughter.)
The bald eagle became an American icon as it appeared on official documents, currency, flags, public buildings, and other government-related materials.
Despite its symbolic value, America's majestic national bird has been threatened with extinction. In the late 1800s, the United States had 100,000 nesting bald eagles, but the population quickly declined because of habitat loss and hunting.
The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 made it unlawful to acquire, kill, or sell the birds. When they began consuming prey polluted with DDT, a chemical widely used following World War II, a new concern emerged. In the 1960s, there were less than 400 breeding pairs remaining in the continental United States, and the bald eagle was listed as an endangered species in 1978.
Due to federal protections and controls regarding DDT, the bald eagle population rebounded sufficiently in 1995 for the bird's status to be reclassified from endangered to threatened, and then totally removed off the list in 2007.
According to the US Department of Interior, there are currently more than 71,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states.
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