Amidst the most divisive presidential election in U.S. history, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) serves as a heartening reminder of the beauty, strength, and longevity for which it was chosen, in 1782, to be our national symbol. But here in Knight Inlet, British Columbia, a bloodstained beak and an array of dislodged feathers hint at the struggles this beautiful icon must endure to survive.

One midsummer afternoon, photographer Neil Aldridge observed the powerful predator swoop and capture a young sea gull (family Laridae) struggling to get airborne at the edge of its flock. With the gull in its talons, and unable to lift off with its submerged prey, the eagle swam 150 meters (nearly 500 feet) to an exposed rock. There, the eagle finally dispatched the gull with powerful blows from its curved beak. Despite their often serene appearance, violent clashes like this aren’t uncommon for bald eagles. As opportunistic feeders, they routinely harass other birds in attempts to steal their food, and sometimes prey on the birds themselves.

Although bald eagle populations are healthy and stable today, that was not always the case. In the 1960s, hunting and pesticide-use threatened to wipe out this iconic species. By 1963, the number of breeding pairs in the United States had fallen to just over 400, down from several hundred thousand in the 1700s. In response, the federal government enacted several measures aimed at reversing this troubling trend: It banned the sale and use of DDT (the main pesticide threat); it enacted the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act to outlaw the hunting of these birds; and it listed the bald eagle under the Endangered Species Act in 1978. Today, the global breeding population has rebounded. With numbers in the U.S. alone upwards of 35,000, our national symbol—and one of the country’s most successful conservation stories—is once again free to soar.

Knight Inlet, British Columbia

Neil Aldridge

Neil Aldridge is a conservation photographer, writer, and professional wildlife guide. His photography has won awards throughout the world, including the title of European Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Aldridge aims to create photographs and photo stories that benefit conservation efforts by challenging perceptions of species, increasing public understanding, and inspiring action.

Katie Jewett

Katie Jewett

Katie Jewett is a science writer, producer, and communications manager at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions where she loves learning something new every day about our planet. Previously, she spent winters in the Colorado Rockies and summers living and working on the water.

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