The American bald (in the sense of white, as in piebald), or white-headed, eagle (Haliaetus leucocephalus) is found in all parts of North America near water and feeds chiefly on dead fish (sometimes robbing the osprey's catch) and rodents. It is dark brown with white head, neck, and tail plumage. The northern species (found chiefly in Canada) is slightly larger than the southern, which ranges throughout the United States. With only 417 known breeding pairs in the 48 contiguous states in 1963, the bald eagle population was dwindling alarmingly; a decade later they were placed on the endangered species list. In one of the greatest success stories in species recovery, conservation methods such as the banning of DDT and the prohibition against eagle hunting had by the beginning of the 21st cent. increased the breeding population in the lower 48 states to some 5,000 pairs. In 1995 the bald eagle was removed from endangered status, and in 2007, when there were nearly 10,000 breeding pairs in the lower 48, it was removed from threatened status. The bald eagle (and golden eagle) continue to be protected by federal law.
The golden, or mountain, eagle (genus Aquila—whence aquiline, meaning eaglelike) is widespread in the Northern Hemisphere, in the United States found mostly in the West. Unlike the bald eagle, it is an aggressive predator. In Asia it is trained to hunt small game (see falconry). The adult is sooty brown with tawny head and neck feathers; unlike those of the bald eagle, its legs are feathered to the toes. The gray and Steller's sea eagles (also in the genus Haliaetus) are native to colder areas of the Northern Hemisphere; the king or imperial eagle to S Europe and Asia; and the rare monkey-eating eagle to the Philippines. The harpy, or harpy eagle (Thrasyaetus harpyia), of Central and South America, the largest (38 in./95 cm long) of the hawks, eats macaws and sloths. It was named for the winged monsters of Greek myth and was called "winged wolf" by the Aztecs. New Zealand's extinct Haast's eagle, which had a 10-ft (3-m) wingspan and weighed 30% to 40% more than the harpy, was the top predator in the archipelago's ecosystem prior to the arrival of humans.
Eagles—impressive both in size and for their fearsome beauty—have long been symbols of royal power and have appeared on coins, seals, flags, and standards since ancient times. The eagle was the emblem of one of the Ptolemies of Egypt and was borne on the standards of the Roman armies and of Napoleon's troops. The American bald eagle became the national emblem of the United States by act of Congress in 1782. In folklore the eagle's ability to carry off prey, including children (e.g., the legend of Ganymede), has been exaggerated; even the powerful golden eagle can lift no more than 8 lb (3.6 kg).
Eagles are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Falconiformes, family Accipitridae.
Eagles are differentiated from other birds of prey mainly by their larger size, more powerful build, and heavier head and bill. Even the smallest eagles, like the Booted Eagle (which is comparable in size to a Common Buzzard or Red-tailed Hawk), have relatively longer and more evenly broad wings, and more direct, faster flight. Most eagles are larger than any other raptors apart from the vultures.
Like all birds of prey, eagles have very large powerful hooked beaks for tearing flesh from their prey, strong legs, and powerful talons. They also have extremely keen eyesight to enable them to spot potential prey from a very long distance. This keen eyesight is primarily contributed by their extremely large pupils which cause minimal diffraction (scattering) of the incoming light.
In Britain before 1678, Eagle referred specifically to the Golden Eagle, the other native species, the White-tailed Eagle, being known as the Erne. The modern name "Golden Eagle" for Aquila chrysaetos was introduced by the naturalist John Ray.
Eagles build their nests, called eyries, in tall trees or on high cliffs. Many species lay two eggs, but the older, larger chick frequently kills its younger sibling once it has hatched.
Eagles are sometimes used in falconry. They appear prominently in myth and literature. In the Old World, such references are commonly to the Golden Eagle (or possibly closely related species found in warmer climates).
Major new research into eagle taxonomy suggests that the important genera Aquila and Hieraaetus are not composed of nearest relatives, and it is likely that a reclassification of these genera will soon take place, with some species being moved to Lophaetus or Ictinaetus.
Old English used the term Earn, related to Scandinavia's Ørn / Örn. The etymology of this word is related to Greek ornis, literally meaning "bird". In this sense, the Eagle is the Bird with a capital B.
Eagles have been used by many nations as a national symbol.
The eagle is the symbol used to depict John the Apostle in some Christian churches, whose writing most clearly witnesses the divinity of Christ. In art, John, as the author of the Gospel, is sometimes depicted with an eagle. See Names of John.
The eagle is a sacred bird in some cultures and the feathers of the eagle are central to many religious and spiritual customs, especially amongst Native Americans in the United States and First Nations in Canada, as well as among many of the peoples of Meso-America. Some Native American peoples revere eagles as sacred religious objects and the feathers and parts of Bald and Golden Eagles are often compared to the Bible and crucifix. Eagle feathers are often used in various ceremonies and are used to honor noteworthy achievements and qualities such as exceptional leadership and bravery. In the cultures of the Northwest Coast, Eagle is also a supernatural being and also the ancestor and features in the heraldic crests of important clans known as totem poles.
Despite modern and historic Native American practices of giving eagle feathers to non-indigenous people and also members of other tribes who have been deemed worthy, current United States eagle feather law stipulates that only individuals of certifiable Native American ancestry enrolled in a federally recognized tribe are legally authorized to obtain eagle feathers for religious or spiritual In Canada, poaching of eagle feathers for the booming U.S. market has sometimes resulted in the arrests of First Nations person for the crime.