The Bald Eagle in America

Once on the brink of extinction, our national bird has made a remarkable comeback

  • NWF staff
  • Jan 22, 2010
Some wildlife experts estimate that when the first Europeans arrived on the continent, between 250,000 and 500,000 bald eagles--roughly 100,000 of them in the Lower 48--occupied the United States. 

In 1782, the bald eagle was declared America's national symbol. 

The first major decline in the bald eagle population is believed to have occurred in the late 1800s, when large numbers of waterfowl--a primary food source for eagles--were hunted for the feather trade. Eagles were also hunted. 

The passage of the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 prohibited the killing or selling of bald eagles. The act also increased public awareness of the eagle's plight. 

In the aftermath of World War II, use of the pesticide DDT became common on American farms. By way of runoff, the pesticide washed into rivers, streams and lakes and collected in the fatty tissues of fish. Many eagles feeding contaminated fish became sterile. Others continued to reproduce, but their eggs' shells were so weakened by the pesticide that they cracked under the weight of incubating adults. 

By 1963, only 417 nesting pairs of bald eagles survived in the Lower 48. 

In 1967, the secretary of the interior listed bald eagles south of the 40th parallel as endangered under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. 

The use of DDT was banned in the United States in 1972. 

Following the enactment of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the bald eagle was listed as endangered throughout the lower 48 states, except in Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin, where it was designated as threatened. (The species has never been listed as threatened or endangered in Alaska; populations there have always remained stable.) 

From 1973 to 1995,  the eagle's protected status provided a springboard for the eagle's accelerated recovery through captive breeding programs, reintroduction efforts, law enforcement and the protection of nest sites during the breeding season. 

In 1995, the bald eagle's status was reduced from endangered to threatened. An estimated 4,712 nesting pairs occupied the Lower 48. 

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) first proposed removing the bald eagle from the endangered species list in 1999, the breeding population south of Alaska stood at 5,748 pairs. 

In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list. "Today I am proud to announce that the eagle has returned, " said former Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne at a ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. "In 1963, the lower 48 states were home to barely 400 nesting pairs of bald eagles. Today, after decades of conservation effort, they are home to some 10,00 nesting pairs, a 25-fold increase in the last 40 years."

Watch NWF Naturalist David Mizejewski in a video to learn more.

Adapted from "The Bald Eagle in America" by Rene Ebersole, National Wildlife, December/January 2005. (Updated January 2010.)

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