The bald eagle is a grand and beautiful bird of prey that once frequently soared majestically through the skies of the American wilderness. It is also very important in American Indian culture (See: The Bald Eagle is a sacred bird in some North American cultures.) I had always assumed these were the reasons it was chosen as the USA's national bird, and appears on many American coins, seals, stamps, etc. See: The Bald Eagle is the national bird of the United States of America:

The Bald Eagle is the national bird of the United States of America...the Bald Eagle appears on most official seals of the U.S. government, including the Seal of the President of the United States and the Presidential Flag, and in many U.S. federal agency logos

Similar to my idea (but put far more eloquently...) we find this quotation, attributed to President John F. Kennedy: Why Is the Bald Eagle America's National Bird:

President John F. Kennedy added to the list of noble descriptors when he wrote to Charles Callison of the National Audubon Society on July 18, 1961: "The founding fathers made an appropriate choice when they selected the bald eagle as the emblem of the nation . The fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America."

I also found this, along similar lines: The Eagle, Our National Emblem

The bald eagle was chosen June 20, 1782 as the emblem of the United States of American, because of its long life, great strength and majestic looks, and also because it was then believed to exist only on this continent.

But we also find this: The bald eagle on the above mentioned page:

The bald eagle was chosen because of its association with authority and statehood in fact, the eagle had been used as a symbol of governmental power since Roman times.

Granted: This does not contradict what is also quoted there in the name of JFK: JFK only commented why the eagle was an appropriate choice, not on the actual reason for its choice. That is attributed to the bald eagle's "association with authority and statehood."

Also in Wiki (unsourced with regard to reason for the eagle) I found the following: The Bald Eagle is the national bird of the United States of America...

The Bald Eagle is the national bird of the United States of America. The founders of the United States were fond of comparing their new republic with the Roman Republic, in which eagle imagery (usually involving the Golden Eagle) was prominent. On June 20, 1782, the Continental Congress adopted the still-current design for the Great Seal of the United States including a Bald Eagle grasping 13 arrows and a 13-leaf olive branch with its talons.

Wiki seems to claim that the sole reason for choosing the eagle was because the Romans use eagle imagery, while blithely ignoring the contradiction mentioned there: The Romans used the **Golden Eagle, which is also common in the USA!** See: The Golden Eagle is one of the most extensively studied species of raptor in the world in some parts of its range, such as the Western United States...

I suspect a bit of anti-American editorializing on the part of the Wikipedia writers (who are neither particularly unbiased nor consistently reliable, and I believe I detect a slightly condescending tone in that sentence...) - they preferred to omit the more direct, aesthetic and patriotic reasons for choosing the Bald Eagle as the national bird of the USA, but I'm not sure.

In addition, in one of Wikipedia's references :Charles Thomson put together the final design for the Great Seal in June 1782 we also find this:

Although not specifically mentioned, clearly the American Eagle on the Great Seal represents liberty and freedom, a theme central to all three preliminary designs. Thomson underscored how the imagery symbolizes "Independence" by explaining that the shield is "born on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters, to denote that the United States of America ought to rely on their own Virtue."

Which again, Wiki chose to blithely ignore...

Do we have some definitive historical evidence that explains why the Bald Eagle was chosen as the USA's national bird? What is it? Is there any good reason why Wiki would choose to ignore the other reasons stated, and rely only on a vague and unsubstantiated allusion to the Roman Republic?

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    Unexplained downvotes are not constructive. Please state your reason - perhaps the question (and the site at large) can be improved thereby. If I fail to accept an answer, it is simply because it has not answered the question.
    – user2590
    Commented Sep 1, 2013 at 1:15
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    ah ok. It was just an idea I had while having a coffee - I've found a few good answers from congressional records so I thought I'd give it a mention.
    – Kobunite
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 17:54
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    @Kobunite - Congressional records are certainly an excellent source and are readily available. Another good resource is the Federal Register, which is issued daily! See: Federal Register
    – user2590
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 1:47
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    Because the bald eagle looks badass and makes a cool noise? Commented May 13, 2014 at 20:50
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    I can't tell if this is a question about heraldry or a rant about the inadequacies of wikipedia.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 11:16

6 Answers 6


As has been noted, the eagle became the national bird because it was chosen to be on the Great Seal, designed by Charles Thomson. The idea did not emerge out of thin air, however; the eagle is a very popular emblem with a very long history in heraldry. Two of the three committees designing the seal included the eagle in some form. Thus, Thomson would have been familiar with it, both from coins (Holy Roman, Spanish and Russian coins in circulation at the time included eagles in their designs) as well as the draft proposals he had been given.

More importantly, while Thomson was designing the Great Seal, he had access to Symbolorum et emblematum, an influential 1597 book of emblems by Bavarian Joachim Camerarius. That book happened to contain a depiction of an eagle with an olive branch and thunderbolts. The eagle grasping a thunderbolt has a lengthy history stretching back to Classical Antiquity, when it was an allusion to Zeus (or Jupiter, to Rome). This is believed to have been the inspiration for Thomson's design.

Changing the eagle to the bald eagle would have been an original idea, but a fitting one for America. The substitution of arrows for the thunderbolts meanwhile matched the theme of the second committee's proposal, as well as echoing the Dutch Republic Lion - the Dutch arms featured a lion grasping an arrow for each province of the Netherlands. In the same spirit, the Great Seal's bald eagle would grasp 13 arrows.

With regards to Wikipedia: so yes, the Zues/Jupter origin does sort of give it a tenuous link to the Roman Republic. But while I don't see it as "anti-American editorializing" per se, that wikipedia passage was apparently just wildly off base.


  1. Patterson, Richard Sharpe, and Richardson Dougall. The Eagle and the Shield: A History of the Great Seal of the United States. Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, Department of State, 1978.
  2. Beans, Bruce E. Eagle's plume: The struggle to preserve the life and haunts of America's bald eagle. University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Addendum: in addition to the emblem book, Charles Thomson worked with the draft proposals of the earlier committees. Two of them also proposed using eagles.

The first committee, for example, included the Imperial Eagle of Germany. It was in one of six quarters the on the committee's shield, alongside French, Dutch, Scottish, Irish and English symbols, denoting the European countries whose people had populated the United States. The eagle appears in the bottom left quarter.

First Committee

The third committee also included an eagle, this time at the top.

Third Committee

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    This answer was a long time coming, but I'm accepting because your sourced it very nicely to Symbolorum et emblematum and also provided some elaboration on the very unsatisfactory explanation in Wikipedia.
    – user2590
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 17:01
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    A good answer, but I disagree completely in your opinion of that quote. Early Americans were truly quite fond of drawing comparisons between themselves and the Roman Republic (and lessons and warnings from it). After all, there weren't a lot of other successful republics to take inspiration from. I found it a pretty good analysis.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 13:10

It's a big scary powerful bird of prey - which is always popular as symbols. It's pretty distinctive and AFAIK only lives on the North American continent.

Benjamin Franklin famously didn't agree. In a letter to his daughter, Benjamin Franklin wrote:

I wish that the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country, he is a bird of bad moral character, he does not get his living honestly, you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to its nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him.... Besides he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest. . . of America.. . . For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.

However, regarding the turkey, the consensus seems to be that Franklin was writing tongue-in-cheek - simply to annoy another poster.

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    The advantage of the bald eagle over the golden eagle is that it's recognisable. You need to be a half decent ornithologist to distinguish a golden eagle from any other raptor - especially when painted on something by an amateur. But paint any bird with a white head and yellow beak and it becomes a symbol of the USA
    – none
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 2:09
  • I have to down-vote this answer: You're simply expressing one facet of the argument which I already detailed - except you didn't document it. You did not answer the question at all. As I have remarked to others: It is important to Read The Question, not just the title.
    – user2590
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 6:55
  • @ mgb : "The advantage of the bald eagle over the golden eagle is that it's recognisable." That's interesting. But the question was not about the bald eagle vs the golden, nor have you brought any historical evidence at all, which is what the question specifically asks for. The question already philosophizes about the bald eagle, which is easy enough to do.
    – user2590
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 7:01

The bald eagle is the symbol of the United States due to its presence on the Great Seal of the United States. The Great Seal was developed by several different Congressionally-appointed committees and went through various design changes.

The first appearance of a bird on a proposed design was a phoenix, recommended by William Barton, an expert on heraldry. His design was as follows:

Barton design for the great seal

The phoenix appears twice, once above holding the flag and a sword, then on the shield of the seal, rising out of flames. This design was not accepted. In June of 1782, the Continental Congress approached its secretary, Charles Thomson, and asked him to provide a design. It was he that proposed the use of a bald eagle. Here is his design:

Charles Thomson design for the Great Seal

Why Thomson choose the bald eagle is unknown, but at the time it was a well-known bird unique to the United States and common in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Also, Thomson attended a school called the New London Academy (later the University of Delaware), which was founded by Rev. Francis Alison, who had been given a large land grant by William Penn located on the Bald Eagle Creek in Pennsylvania, so there may have been eagle symbology at the school. One influence for his design was undoubtedly the seal of the Dutch Republic, the only major other democracy in the world at the time. This seal (shown below) featured a lion holding a cluster of arrows. Thomson may have thought to replace the lion with the eagle and the sword with the olive branch.

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The bald eagle was not chosen to be the national bird of the United States. It as chosen to be the supporter of the coat of arms of the United States of America when the great seal was adopted.

The reason why the bald eagle was chosen to be the supporter in the achievement of arms of the United States of America when the great seal of the United States was designed remains speculative.

At that time the obverse (front side) of the great seal design of a ruler or government usually had the full achievement of arms encircled by an inscription with the title(s) of the ruler or government.

An achievement of arms would include the "coat of arms" itself on a shield or cartouche. The coat of arms would have a colored field, often partitioned into 2 or more different colored areas, and usually one or more heraldic animals or objects in one or more colors contrasting with the color(s) of the field.

A minimal achievement would have a coronet of rank or crown or a helmet on top of the shield or cartouche with the coat of arms. Helmets were usually covered on top and the sides with a cloth mantling. The mantle might extend down around the 2 sides of the shield or cartouche and have an elaborate leaf like scalloped edge. A crest would sit on top of the helmet and mantle, based on physical crests that had been worn in battles and tournaments in the middle ages. In the 18th century crest were often designed that would have been impractical to physically make, and often floated in air above the coat of arms.

It was and is common to have a motto or war cry written on a scroll or ribbon placed above or below the coat of arms.

Most important persons and institutions had supporters, usually 2 persons or animals, one on the right side of the coat of arms and one on the left side. Some coats of arms had one, three, or four supporters. A pair of supporters, the most common number, would usually stand on a piece of ground or scroll work called a compartment.

Some important nobles used what are called heraldic cloaks as a background for their achievements of arms, and a few monarchs used pavilions as backgrounds for their achievements. Pavilions were like tents with domed tops. Except for occasional heraldic cloaks and pavilions, achievements did not have any further background colors or patterns.

Here is the description of the great seal from the resolution in 1782:

Arms Paleways of thirteen pieces Argent and Gules: a Chief, Azure. The Escutcheon on the breast of the American bald Eagle displayed, proper, holding in his dexter talon an Olive branch, and in his sinister a bundle of thirteen arrows, all proper, & in his beak a scroll, inscribed with this Motto. "E pluribus unum".–

For the Crest Over the head of the Eagle which appears above the Escutcheon, A Glory, Or, breaking through a cloud, proper, & surrounding thirteen stars forming a Constellation, Argent, on an Azure field.–

Reverse A Pyramid unfinished. In the Zenith an Eye in a triangle surrounded with a glory proper. Over the Eye these words "Annuit Coeptis". On the base of the pyramid the numerical letters MDCCLXXVI & underneath the following motto. "novus ordo seclorum"


Technically the coat of arms of the USA is white or silver, with six thin red vertical bars, and at the top a blue area from side to side. Since this is on a shield on the breast of the eagle, and the background behind the eagle does not have a specified color or pattern, the eagle is the single supporter of the coat of arms. The eagle is part of the achievement of arms that includes the coat of arms, not part of the coat of arms.

Note that the cloud and glory are usually depicted as a circle, like the halos or glories around the heads of the imperial eagle of the Holy Roman Empire. The cloud and glory are described as a crest over the head of the eagle. In those days many crests were depicted floating freely above the rest of the achievement of arms. The motto in a scroll held in the eagle's beak is connected to the rest of the achievement better than most mottos are.

The achievement of the USA does not have a compartment, or helmet, or mantle, or any crown or coronet, nor any heraldic cloak or pavilion.

So what possible inspiration could there be for the eagle and its design features? Choosing a bald eagle is easy to explain once an eagle has been selected, since the bald eagle is a type of eagle native to the Americas.

In 1782 the members of congress would have some familiarity with the arms, seals and heraldic achievements of the powers of Europe. Those powers included the Papal States - a catholic theocracy unpopular with most of the founding fathers - three republics, and less than a dozen monarchies.

The three republics included Venice, a centralized state ruling many colonies like Great Britain had, and the decentralized Swiss Confederation and United Netherlands that would have been more inspiring to the founding fathers especially during the time when the loose Articles of Confederation seemed to be strong enough. I do not see any heraldic inspiration from them except for the bunch of arrows in the sinister claw of the American eagle being based on the bunch of arrows in the sinister paw of the lion of the States General of the United Netherlands.

There are examples of eagles with objects in both claws. At that time the Russian imperial eagle held a scepter in the dexter claw and an orb in the sinister claw, the eagle of the Holy Roman Empire held both a sword and a scepter in the dexter claw and an orb in the sinister claw, and the eagle of the kingdom of Prussia held a scepter in the dexter claw and an orb in the sinister claw.

Eagles with coats of arms on shields on their breasts were common in the Holy Roman Empire. The loose organization of the Holy Roman Empire, with most powers in the hands of the various states, and the monarch being elected by an electorial college, would seem more inspirational to the founding fathers than most European monarchies.

The (elective) emperors began putting the coats of arms of their hereditary possessions on the breasts of the imperial eagle about 1440. That is an example of the imperial eagle in the gold or yellow field of the imperial coat of arms having other coats of arms on its breast. There were also many examples of the imperial eagle being used as a single supporter of other coats of arms. The coats of arms of many princes and many prince bishops had their territorial arms on the breasts of the imperial eagle.

And prince bishops, prince archbishops, and prince abbots, were elected by small bodies of clerics in their domains, thus somewhat resembling the governors of more conservative American States.

There were many city states in the Holy Roman empire, republics that did have some resemblance to the governments of some of the more conservative American states. Many of them put their coats of arms on the breast of the imperial eagle either as a smaller coat of arms on top of the coat of arms of the empire, or else using the imperial eagle as a single supporter for their coat of arms.

So the founding fathers could have seen an eagle as an emblem of the civic virtues of the ancient Roman republic. And in the present day world they could see that the eagle was used as the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire that claimed to be the rightful successor of the Roman Empire and had some features that they could admire.

The United States was sometimes described as a new empire even back then, since it had a very large territory like the Holy Roman Empire, and was composed of states with large power relative to the central government like the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire with empire-level decisions made jointly by the elected emperor and the Diet consisting of representatives of the various states operated similarly to a decentralized republic like the Swiss Confederation, the United Netherlands, or the United States under the Articles of Confederation.

So the founding fathers might have seen the Roman eagle as not only a symbol of the bygone civic virtues of the ancient Roman Republic, but also of a large modern realm where states with large autonomy and a large degree of freedom from the central authority joined together for common purposes in a largely republican manner.

Added May 9, 2018. Wikipedia does claim that the bald eagle is the national bird of the United States.



And it gives this as the source:


So far I have not found any reference to the bald eagle being declared the national bird of the USA on any specific date. Sources often give the adoption of the great seal of the USA in 1782 as the date, but that is the date that the bald eagle became the supporter in the US coat of arms.


Actually the question is inaccurate. The bald eagle is not the national bird of the United states of America, unless someone can point out a congressional resolution making it the national bird.

Many or all states in the USA have state animals, state fish, state flowers, state birds, state trees, etc., etc., etc., adopted by various resolutions of their legislatures. so it is possible that the Congress of the United States sometime decreed a national bird of the United States. But you should find a record of it happening before saying that there is a national bird of the United States of America.

In 1782 the congress needed a great seal for the United States. A seal is 1) a pattern or design, 2) a device for impressing that pattern on wafers of wax, lead, gold, or other materials, and 3) the wafers of wax (or other materials) impressed with the seal pattern or design and attached to documents.

In those days it was normal and usual to attach seals (3) to documents such as deeds, appointment or release of guardians, wills, etc. etc., instead of or along with the signatures of the parties involved, to authenticate and give legal force to those documents. Many of the members of congress had their own seals which they used on their own personal documents, so it was very unseemly for the aspiring national government they served to not have a great seal of its own.

The usual design of a seal had the name of the person or organization and the coat of arms of the person or organization. In those days the coat of arms of a realm was considered far more important than its national flag.

The coat of arms of the United States of America is technically "Argent [silver or white] six pallets [thin vertical bars] gules [red], a chief [horizontal bar at the top] azure [blue)], though it is legally but incorrectly described as "Paleways of thirteen pieces, argent and gules, a chief, azure" in order that the thirteen original states are mentioned. It is obviously based on the national flag which was adopted in 1777.


It is perfectly proper to display a coat of arms by itself, as on a heraldic banner, but it is common to depict a coat of arms in what is called an "achievement" with various heraldic accessories.

Among the main heraldic accessories are supporters, usually a pair holding onto the shield or cartouche with the coat of arms. The US has a single supporter, a bald eagle "displayed" with the wings spread, brown, with white head and white tail feathers. I don't know if the color of the beak and claws is specified. The coat of arms is placed on the breast of the eagle. The eagle has an olive branch (green) in it's dexter claw, (the eagle's right one, on the left as seen by the viewer) and thirteen arrows argent in it's other, "sinister", claw, and faces to the dexter side as is normal with heraldic animals.

The eagle has a ribbon with the motto "E pluribus unum" in it's beak, and above it's head is a round, cloud-like "glory" with thirteen stars argent on a blue field.

Thus the bald eagle is not "the national bird" of the United States, which may not even have any "national bird", but instead the supporter and largest piece of the national coat of arms. The achievement of arms of the United States is used as the basis for the arms and seals and flags of most federal government departments and agencies and is seen on the regimental colors and standards of military units.

I suggest that possible inspirations for the design of the US coat of arms would have been realms with similar decentralized governments, especially since the coat arms as adopted during the looser Articles of Confederation and not the more centralized constitution. It has been suggested in other answers that the bundle of arrows was suggested by arms of the United provinces (the future Netherlands). The US coat of arms does not seem to have much resemblance to the arms of the Swiss Confederation.

Of course the largest and most famous decentralized realm was the Holy Roman Empire, which had many realms and states within it that all used their own coats of arms, flags, and great seals, as well as the coat of arms, flag, and great seal of the Emperor of the Romans.

At that time the coat of arms of the emperor (Joseph II) as "Or [gold or yellow] a two headed eagle displayed sable [black] with haloes around the two heads, holding a sword and scepter in the dexter claw and an orb in the sinister claw." The eagle carried a shield on its breast with the arms of the lordships, counties, landgravotes, margravites, duchies, kingdoms, etc., that the emperor as the hereditary ruler of. the supporters were two griffins, black and gold, and on top of the shield was an imperial mitre crown.



Because there seems to be no satisfactory historical reason given for why the bald eagle was chosen as the emblem of the United States, and because there is abundant evidence in other documentation from America's early history that the men who founded our country founded it on Biblical principles, I believe there is a great possibility that these men who relied on God may have used the Scripture reference Isaiah 40:31 as their basis. "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint." Perhaps it was not that the promoter of the emblem thought of America's own authority or its own independance at all, but ultimately of man's utter dependance on His creator as the foundation of America's endurance.

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    the men who founded our country founded it on Biblical principles Downvoting this answer unless you can reliably source that statement-IMO it's a popular myth among some groups who would simply like to believe it's so. The Declaration mentions "Their Creator" - a very generic term-by no means biblical. The Constitution makes no mention of God or biblical verses, and is not biblically oriented in terms of the government it outlines. It's based on the Roman Republic, and the ideas of the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin etc were their students.
    – user2590
    Commented May 17, 2014 at 23:19
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    In addition, the Bald Eagle is indigenous to North America, so I can't be the eagle referred to in the OT. If they wanted a biblical eagle, they should have chosen the Golden Eagle for example, which is found both in Eurasia and North America. It seems quite clear that the Bald Eagle was chosen because it represented something quintessentially American, not biblical. Franklin may have advocated the turkey, because it is of America ; a true original native of America.
    – user2590
    Commented May 18, 2014 at 2:05
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    Besides the above mentioned problems with your answer, it remains mere speculation. Even we accepted your premise the men who founded our country founded it on Biblical principles, you have not proven that was the reason the Bald Eagle was chosen, but simply ventured a guess.
    – user2590
    Commented May 18, 2014 at 2:09
  • @Vector: I'd hold - although I cannot prove it - that this may have been in the heraldic tradition. And yes, obviously in such a case this particular species would make it kind of unique. Birds of prey - generally predators - are often to be found on coat of arms and similar. Also, the native Americans probably revered these birds as well (like so many others). Commented May 18, 2014 at 3:17
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    but ultimately of man's utter dependance on His creator as the foundation of America's endurance - No way I can accept that: A dominant bird of prey with a fierce expression and outstretched talons bearing a sheath of arrows of war symbolizes dependence?! That's ludicrous IMO.
    – user2590
    Commented May 18, 2014 at 7:11

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