American Eagle Day 2024

What is American Eagle Day and why is it so important?

In 1995, the American Eagle Foundation created American Eagle Day as a way to celebrate our nation's symbol – the Bald Eagle – and the conservation success story of this once-endangered bird. In the mid-1900s, the Bald Eagle population was so low that the bird was on the verge of extinction due to pesticides and poaching, but thanks to conservation efforts and new protections, the population has rebounded and there are estimated to be more than 300,000 eagles across the United States. 

However, this day isn't just a celebration, but a reminder that even an apex species like the Bald Eagle is also fragile; without thoughtful stewardship, eagles could once again find themselves on the decline. Though many of the old conservation issues are no longer a problem, eagles today are facing newer challenges, and once again need our help to keep them safe.

One of the biggest issues affecting this species is lead poisoning. Lead is a toxic heavy metal that can cause severe neurological issues, and even a small amount is enough to kill an adult Bald Eagle. The main source of lead poisoning is the remains of animals left in the field by hunters using lead ammunition; lead bullets fragment on impact, and when eagles scavenge these remains, they unknowingly consume very small pieces of lead. It is a big problem. 

Bald Eagle receiving surgery in the Wildlife Center's hospital “Just last year, we had a record-breaking year for eagle admissions, 66 in total," said Dr. Karra, the Center's Director of Veterinary Services. “Almost all of them had some level of lead poisoning. And we have already admitted 35 this year, another record-breaking pace.”

Part of the reason for this increase in admissions is that, as both eagle and human populations have increased, eagles are under increased pressure to find and establish nesting territories. More eagles are leaving their coastal habitat behind and moving further inland. These birds are mainly scavengers, and as a result, they often scavenge the remains of deer and other game left in the field by hunters.

At the same time, Bald Eagles have also frequented roadways in search of roadkill, an equally dangerous meal. As a large-bodied bird, it can take eagles longer to gain lift than other birds, meaning that they can't always get out of the way of fast-approaching vehicles in time. Roadway scavenging combined with low levels of lead in their system is a particularly deadly combo – these birds do not have the reaction speed needed to attempt to fly out of the way. Vehicle collisions are a common cause of admission for eagles at the Center; it often leaves these birds with fractured wings, injured eyes, or worse – many eagles never make it to the Center in time to receive treatment. 

“It's a tough situation,” noted Paige, one of the Center's Front Desk Coordinators. “We're getting calls about eagles almost every week now, but it can be hard to find the resources to capture the birds in time, especially if they can still fly short distances. But with the help of volunteers and partnering rehabilitators, we're doing our best to get all these birds help.”

This American Eagle Day, there are a couple of things that you can do to help ensure that Bald Eagles stay healthy and safe. First, be sure to tell others – especially any friends or family members who are hunters – the importance of switching to non-lead ammunition; this alternative ammunition is just as effective as lead, but does not fragment on impact and prevents lead exposure in wildlife. Secondly, keep an eye out on the roadway, and be prepared to stop for wildlife. If roadkill is in the center of the road, consider moving it to the side if you can do so safely, or contact VDOT about removing the carcass if it is located on the interstate.

If you would like to play a more direct role in helping eagles, and other wildlife, you can join the Center's volunteer transport team. These volunteers play a crucial role in transporting animals to the Center or other rehabilitators, and often help rescue the animals too.

National Bald Eagle Day is a day to celebrate these birds and their conservation success story. It's also a day to rededicate ourselves to a more thoughtful and deliberate way of living day-to-day – for eagles, and for all wild species.