National bird

Ozzie Tollefson’s photo of the American bald eagle.

Photography is an ongoing challenge for me. I had photographed dozens of bald eagles in Haines, Alaska, back in the early ’80s, but since moving back to Minnesota, I had not seen one close enough for a good shot. However, 10 days ago I got lucky. Driving home from Fergus Falls on County Highway 1, I spotted a mature bald eagle in a tree on the north side of the highway. I slowed down and stopped at the far edge of the road. Unfortunately, all I had was my cellphone to take a photo. I took a few shots, but they weren’t very good. 

I was about 2 miles from my house, so I drove home to get my Nikon with a 200mm telephoto lens, hoping the bird would still be there when I came back. As I approached the tree where I had seen him, I was pleased the bald eagle was still perched on the same branch. I took a dozen shots and posted here is the best one. As the old saying goes, I was in the right place at the right time.

The American bald eagle has served as our official emblem since June 20, 1782, when congress approved it. The story about Benjamin Franklin wanting the national bird to be a turkey is just a myth. This false story began as a result of a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter in 1784.  Franklin wrote, “The bald eagle is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly; he is too lazy to fish for himself.” About the turkey, Franklin wrote that in comparison to the bald eagle, the turkey is “a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” So, although Benjamin Franklin defended the honor of the turkey against the bald eagle, he did not propose its becoming one of America’s most important symbols.

Despite its symbolic significance, America’s majestic national bird has faced a real-life threat of extinction. In the late 1800s, the country was home to 100,000 nesting bald eagles, but the number of birds soon dwindled due to habitat destruction and hunting. In 1940, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, making it illegal to possess, kill or sell the birds. A new  threat arose when they began eating prey contaminated with DDT, a pesticide that came into wide use following World War II. In the 1960s, there were only around 400 breeding pairs left in the continental U.S., and in 1978 the bald eagle was put on the endangered species list. Thanks to federal protections as well as regulations involving DDT, our national bird has recovered and removed from the list in 2007.

The bald eagle’s extraordinary success as a raptor centers on two critical characteristics: speed and eyesight.  From its perch at the top of trees, the eagle can dive at speeds of 125–200 mph to catch its prey by its talons. But more than speed, it’s the bald eagle’s exceptional visual skills that sets it apart from other birds – that and the fact that it can turn its head almost 270 degrees. These factors make this bird a productive hunter.

Observations have recorded a bald eagle spotting a rabbit 2 miles away.  Eagles have excellent 20/5 vision compared to an average human who has only 20/20 vison. This means Eagles can see things from 20 feet away that we can only see from 5 feet away. Their eyes are stated to be larger in size than their brain, by weight. Color vision with resolution and clarity are the most prominent features of eagles’ eyes. Eagles can identify five distinctly colored squirrels and locate their prey even if hidden.

I took the enclosed photo on Jan. 4, 2021. Two days later, our national Capitol building was attacked by insurrectionists, who believe our 2020 presidential election was rigged. We are going through a dangerous time when our very system of democracy is threatened. How did that all begin? It started with conspiracy theories and lies fostered by ambitious government leaders, who have spread falsehoods for their own political gain. Unfortunately, it is working and may get worse. I think we should take a cue from our national bird and become more “eagle eyed.” We must stop seeing what we want to see, and start seeing the truth. 


Ozzie Tollefson is the author of “Mr. Teacher” and lives near Phelps Mill.

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