Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Our American Eagle Identity

Posted by lisagbrown on August 8, 2007

The bald eagle was chosen as America’s national bird in 1782 as a symbol of the strength and resilience of the American people. Its image became an icon of US spirit, a visual representation of our national identity. In particular, the bald white face of the eagle has come to symbolize the face of the US military, the government, and policy makers. It is an icon whose power stems in large part from the image the US hopes to present to the rest of the world.

The bald eagle is a fearsome warrior, a bird who instills fear in its prey, who hunts with grace and majesty. Its strength of character and skill in the art of the hunt make it an ideal symbol for a country that aims to project such qualities. At least, it used to be. It used to be all these things until we discovered that it is not. Ornothologists have recently realized that the bald eagle is not at all the type of animal we thought it was. In fact, our national symbol has qualities that more closely resemble the common vulture than it does the persona we had envisioned. Rather than demonstrating sophisticated hunting prowess, the eagle generally feeds on carrion left by other predators. It scavanges campgrounds and garbage dumps. Any hunting it engages in usually involves trout, salmon, or other fish — hardly the stuff of a feared warrior.

But just as our perception of the bald eagle is changing, so too has world-wide perception of the US. And so, too, is our cultural identity changing. Though the bald eagle is not who we thought it was, does our new understanding of the bird make it any less appropriate as our national image? Perhaps we would not describe ourselves as opportunistic vultures, but given the state of our international affairs, the identity ascribed to our old vision of the bald eagle doesn’t seem accurate either. As we begin to learn and accept the truth about our national bird, perhaps we ought to turn the lens of scrutiny back towards our nation and reflect upon our own truths.

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