When the United States celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, the America bald eagle–the best-known symbol of America – was disappearing from the American landscape. Hardly any could be found in Ohio or elsewhere.
But as we prepare for the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026, the resurgence of this iconic symbol of America is a remarkable success story, especially here in Ohio.
An American symbol: revered but at risk
The bald eagle became a national symbol when it was placed on the Great Seal of the United States in 1782, and Congress adopted the design. With a white head and tail contrasting with dark-colored plumage, adult bald eagles are recognizable to many Americans.
When the region presently known as Ohio was granted statehood in 1803, bald eagles likely frequented the state’s abundant rivers, lakes, and wetlands.
The bald eagle’s status as the United States’ symbol offered prestige but not protection in the nation’s infancy. On the contrary, early settlers viewed eagles as a threat and hunted them. Habitat loss compounded the effect of overhunting as trees were cut down and wetlands drained.
In addition, pesticides like DDT, introduced in the 1940s for insect control, led to reproductive failure in raptors.
Protection for endangered bald eagles taken up in Ohio
Because of harmful practices, the national population of bald eagles declined to the point that people began to realize how dire the situation was and changes were made.
Ohio created its endangered species list in 1974 and bald eagles were among the first added for protection. In 1978, they were added to the federal endangered species list.
In 1979 in Ohio, just four next pairs remained. While many environmental factors had been eliminated, the bald eagles would need outside help to fully recover.
ODNR begins restoration program
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources created a bald eagle restoration program in 1979 to foster chicks, monitor nests, and restore habitats.
In the 1980s, each of the state’s bald eagle nests in existence at the time were monitored daily by staff to determine if the nest was successful and to record when young eaglets were hatched. The juvenile eagles were closely monitored until they were ready to fledge at about 9 1/2 weeks old.
When the young eagles had developed wing feathers large enough to fly, staff climbed up to the nest and caught each fledgling. The eagle’s feet were wrapped in gauze to protect the bird and researchers from sharp talons.
Each young bird was lowered to the ground, where researchers took measurements and gathered information about the bird’s health.
Finally, each young eagle was outfitted with leg bands, a solar-powered telemetry unit, and wing markers with a number designating the individual. The birds were then placed back in the nest.
This provided valuable data for researchers who tracked the state’s growing population. Staff learned Ohio had the habitat needed to support eagles at each stage of development, and the state’s eagle population climbed accordingly.
A symbol restored for future generations
Witnessing and supporting the bald eagle’s recovery has been one of our proudest accomplishments. It is always a treat to see bald eagles soaring above Ohio’s waterways, and it is a sight that viewers are lucky to see more often now.
Bald eagles can be found across the state, but the counties adjoining Lake Erie, those with large river systems, and those with healthy wetland ecosystems have the densest eagle populations.
So, as we plan to celebrate our pride in the founding of our country, we should also celebrate the founding father’s selection of the bald eagle to grace our nation’s Great Seal.
This story was originally published by the Ohio History Connection on May 23, 2023. It is being republished here through a collaborative agreement.