The Bald Eagle owes its name to the Middle English term “balde,” meaning “white.” It does not mean “hairless” or “lack of feathers.” Juvenile Bald Eagles do not have white heads, tails or yellow beaks and eyes. Around three years of age they will start to develop these characteristics as they transition into a mature bird at the age of five. The Bald Eagle has a wingspan of 6 to 8 feet, and makes its habitat along coastlines or large bodies of fresh water. Eagles require a 25 square mile hunting territory, and appear to mate for life (which can approach 40-50 years).
National Symbol and School Mascot
The bald eagle became the official emblem of the United States in 1782. Part of the reason that it was selected is because the Bald Eagle can only be found in North America. Ben Franklin was not in favor of having the Bald Eagle as the national symbol. As a naturalist, Ben Franklin realized that bald eagles were prone to scavengers and piracy. Eagles steal the spoils of its lesser cousin, the Osprey. Franklin felt that these attributes were not worthy of being represented as the national symbol. On the contrary, however, these traits give testimony to this noble creature’s ability to adapt, and above all else, ability to survive (like our great country). Through an act of Congress, the bald eagle became the national symbol…despite Ben Franklin’s wishes. Georgia Southern University adopted the eagle as its symbol in 1960.
Eagles in Georgia
Like the peregrine falcon, brown pelican, and other species, our national symbol suffered a great fall due to pesticides (DDT) employed by man during the 1950 — 60’s. Ultimately our emblem found itself on the endangered species list. By 1970, there was only one known successful nesting pair in Georgia. However, through a concerted effort of the State and Federal government, use of the pesticides ceased and the bird showed its resilience in a great recovery effort. In 2007 it came off of the federal list of threatened and endangered species. In 2017 surveys documented 218 nests in Georgia with 142 of those being successful.
Eagles can be found around larger lakes and along the Georgia coast. The six coastal counties in Georgia had 71 occupied nest territories in the year 2020. During the fall and winter, the population rises due to the arrival of migrating eagles that over-winter in Georgia. An “eagle sighting” is memorable, and now a more frequent experience for Georgians across the state.
The Center’s Eagles
The Story of Freedom
The image depicts Georgia Southern University’s Bald Eagle named “Freedom”. Freedom is a male Southern Bald Eagle that was found knocked out of the nest in Maitland, FL. Only weeks old and appearing like a “brown ball of fuzz”, it was discovered that the young eagle had an injury to its beak and suffered from an infection. Rushed to the Florida Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, Freedom made a complete recovery from the infection but the injury to the beak was permanent, preventing his release into the wild. With the permission of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Southern University acquired Freedom in 2004. Today, Freedom serves not only as an ambassador for wildlife and as an institutional symbol, but as an “iconic reminder” of the strength and majesty of our great nation. Through the Georgia Southern University Center for Wildlife Education and Lamar Q Ball, Jr. Raptor Center, thousands of visitors young and old are embraced by the Power of Freedom.
In the United States Government’s effort to save the Bald Eagle, it initiated an arduous recovery plan. The bird pictured was taken as an egg from a nest site in the Florida Everglades by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service special agents. Before you become overly alarmed, because of the long breeding season in Florida, the parent birds immediately laid additional eggs and therefore this activity did not negatively impact the local population. Once taken from the nest, these soldiers of stewardship quickly placed the cherished eggs in a warmed box and made the long departure for the Sutton Research Center in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Given a safe arrival, the eggs were quickly whisked to the Research Center where the incubation period continued uninterrupted.
After a total of 35 days, Glory completed the most difficult task of introducing herself to the world. The process of breaking out of the shell is called “piping.” It is hugely taxing and many birds do not succeed. However, with a fighting spirit, Glory made her way into the world.
So small that she could fit in the palm of your hand, and without the benefit of wild parents, the job of caring for this young eaglet was in the hands of man. Critical in the first 25 days is the process of “species identity.” Like the television documentaries with geese and whooping cranes, young fowl will identify themselves by imprinting to the first objects they see during this critical period of development. To ensure that Glory would know herself to be an eagle, the human caretakers meticulously fed this pint-sized raptor by use of an eagle puppet. In addition, and at the appropriate age, Glory was coupled with other eagles of similar age. Throughout the rearing process, there was no association or knowledge of the efforts being made on her behalf by man.
Like all birds capable of flight, her growth was extraordinary. In little more than 60 days she went from a bird that could fit in the palm of your hand to the size that she is before you. She was now ready to make introduction into the wild. Through a coordinated effort overseen by the Federal Government it was determined that she, along with many others, would be released in Gulf Shores, Mississippi. The science revealed that introducing many eagles of a similar age at the same time would give the species a greater chance of finding a mate when reaching sexual maturity.
At the nest site, man’s helping hand continued. Glory, along with the others, was contained for several weeks atop of a release tower… also known as a “hack site.” The human guardians (hack site attendants) kept careful vigil and fed these birds during this critical phase. Though imprisoned, these young eagles were for the first time allowed to view their vast surroundings.
One fateful day, the enclosure was opened and freedom was before her. As she honed her prowess as North America’s largest and most powerful predatory bird, food continued to be delivered by her human guardian. As in nature’s plan and to the joy and sadness of her guardians, one day she failed to reappear. She was now free and on her own, as a champion of her species. Though she was unaware, Glory bore great expectations on her wings. It was hoped that she would reach sexual maturity, which is noted by the white head and white tail that is so ingrained in the minds of the American public.
We know all these facts because the only thing that separated her from her more wild counterparts was the presence of a band around her leg and a small plastic tag on her wing. One can only wonder what her life must have been like…from the time that she left the hack site until she next encountered man who had served as her guardian throughout the process.
Ironic it is that man was what would break Glory’s spirits. What follows is sketchy but this much we know. She was likely in migration and traveling over Georgia when she was shot down from the sky. The X-rays clearly showed the presence of lead pellets from a shotgun blast. Considerable efforts were made by a veterinarian to salvage the wing, but to no avail. Ultimately, and at the hands of man, half of the right wing required amputation.
Records have indicated that eagles are able to live as long as 40 years, making them one of the longest lived species of any bird. The loss of Glory in the wild affected all of her progeny that could have followed. Glory is proof of man’s great capacity for change. Today she is remembered as an ambassador, not only of her species or Georgia Southern University, but of this great nation!
Last updated: 3/27/2023