Bald Eagle Symbolism: Not Really Bald!

Bald eagle close up with flag in the background main

Birds have a lot of symbolism. They are quite an important part of American culture from turkeys on Thanksgiving, the Tweety bird, and a cardinal or robin is the first sign of spring.  But, most important is probably our national bird, the bald eagle, inspired by the Roman standard.  Bald eagles symbolize authority, bravery, and the American West.

Not “Bald”  

Bald eagles are not actually bald!  Sorry, I had to tell you.  The secret is out!

Their name comes from an old usage of the word “bald” to mean “white patch.”  The head of the eagle has white feathers that contrast brown body and wings.  

“Bald eagle” basically means “white-headed eagle.”  

Basic Bald Eagle Facts

Bald eagles are members of the eagle and hawk family of birds. 

Bald eagles are appropriately found throughout the U.S. from Alaska to Florida as well as in Canada and Northern Mexico.  They live on coasts, rivers, and large lakes.  

They might have a reputation as mighty hunters, but bald eagles have a diet largely of fish.  Bald eagles also eat other birds, small mammals, and a variety of other things. Not picky eaters. 

Bald eagles are majestic flyers with long wing spans and flying speeds of possibly thirty-five miles an hour (they might get ticketed doing that locally around here!).  

They nest high up, in nests built by both sexes, and often mate for life.  

Roman Standard 

A majestic predator like the eagle naturally impressed people from ancient times, becoming a symbol of power and authority.  They became the symbol of the Roman legions (army).

The “Aquila” (eagle) was the standard, the insignia of power of the great Roman legion, the institution that made put Ancient Rome on the map.  

Great military accounts in our country tell of the importance of defending battle flags.  The eagle was of almost sacred importance to the Roman soldier.  

Native American Culture 

The eagle is important to Native American culture.  

Many Native Americans believe eagles are spiritual messengers between heaven and earth.  

Eagle feathers are an important part of Native American headdresses and eagle parts are used for religious ceremonies. The United States provides them special permission to use certain eagle parts even though the eagle itself is protected by federal law.  

National Symbol of the United States

The Founding Fathers greatly respected ancient cultures as role models.  They believed that the Roman Republic was an important guide for the new American nation.  

Before the American Revolution even officially won, the Great Seal of the United States was created.  The Great Seal of the United States depicts a bald eagle grasping 13 arrows (original states)  and an olive branch (peace) with thirteen leaves with its talons (willingness to fight).  

The bald eagle became the national bird, inspired by the Roman eagle.  

The secretary of Congress, Charles Thompson, suggested replacing the original white eagle (Roman-inspired) with the bald eagle, providing an American touch.  Thompson felt this native bird symbolized America, freedom, liberty, and independence.   

Benjamin Franklin once joked that the turkey would make a better symbol, being a less warlike and moral creature.  Franklin – legend aside – did not really himself seriously suggest the turkey as the national bird.  It makes for a good story though and is portrayed in the film 1776.

Modern Symbol

The bald eagle is our national bird, symbolizing authority, bravery, and the American West.  

Eagles are symbols of strength and power. Their majestic flight symbolizes grace as well as freedom.  Eagles symbolize nature as well and “eagle scouts” go out and study it.  

The National Recovery Administration (NRA), which tried to bring fairness to labor and business during the New Deal, used a blue eagle symbol.   The blue eagle was a sign of America.  

Eagles Protected 

Eagles in ancient times and our own are national symbols of the country and our values. Things that are precious and worthy of special protection.

In the 20th Century, eagles themselves needed protection. Their numbers were greatly decreasing because of hunting and pesticide usage.  

Eagles became federally protected, and even Native American eagle feather usage is carefully regulated.  It took the banning of the pesticide DDT to start a resurgence of their numbers.  

Final Thoughts 

A white-headed person traditionally was respected for their wisdom and authority.  

The bald eagle became the leading symbol of national authority in our own country, including in patriotic displays during wartime.  Interestingly, the female bald eagle is larger than the male.
And, their cry?  Well, one more spoiler alert: not quite as impressive as you might believe.