Nixon helped save the bald eagle – but what will Trump do for America’s patriotic emblem?

Republicans must protect their national bird, and its homeland, against the dishonour and greed of Trump.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

As pleasures go, looking back through old field guides may sound rather sad, but there is instruction to be found in such hobbies. Not long ago, for instance, I unearthed the first guide to North American birds that I ever owned, an Audubon Society publication from 1977. I was glancing through, more or less idly, when I came to the entry for the bald eagle, otherwise known as America’s national bird, a patriotic cliché as well as an astonishingly elegant acrobat of the air. What I read was chilling, taking me back to the distinctly bad old days when Big Ag seemed beyond censure or control.

“Eating dead fish stranded on beaches and riverbanks has caused many bald eagles to absorb large amounts of pesticides, which interfere with the birds’ calcium metabolism and result in thin-shelled and often infertile eggs. Once a familiar sight along rivers and coasts, our national bird is today known mainly as an occasional migrant… Unless these pesticides can be removed from the bird’s environment, we may face the loss of one of North America’s most magnificent birds.”

I hung on to that book for years (it was a neat fit for a coat pocket) but I was glad to see it going out of date, at least as far as bald eagles were concerned, as steps initiated by the Nixon government began to take effect. One of my fonder memories is of an impromptu drive along the Mississippi, on a clear winter’s afternoon in the late 1990s, to watch the eagles fishing; it was a Sunday and a good many folk had come out for the same reason. Now, the birds seemed plentiful, and it was a delight to see so many elegant, lofty creatures, with wingspans of up to eight feet, sailing above one of the world’s great rivers, an hour or so out of St Louis. By then, the American eagle was prospering, which clearly meant something to the people I met that day.

Until that afternoon, I had been pretty sceptical about national birds (or animals, or trees). For me, the bald eagle, like the British bulldog or the Russian bear, was just part of the background rhetoric, an adopted emblem whose value seemed wholly imposed.

That day, however, the eagles stood for something essential, irreplaceable. So it saddened me when, in a 2015 interview, Donald Trump replied to the question, “Would you cut departments?” by singling out the Environmental Protection Agency, saying that “what they do is a disgrace… every week they come out with new regulations”. When asked who would protect the environment, he said: “We’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses.”

The man has been as good as his word and once more, the American eagle is under threat. It seems a perverse policy for a man who loves to hug the flag, especially when we consider John F Kennedy’s defence of the national bird: “The founding fathers made an appropriate choice when they selected the bald eagle as the emblem of our nation. The fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolises the strength and freedom of America.”

This American eagle, in its nobility, its determination, its diligence in caring for its young, ought to stand for everything that Republicans say their party does. So will they protect the national bird, and its homeland, against the dishonour and greed of Trump and his corporate cronies? Or will they let a noble creature fade into the past? Now, more than ever, it is time for true Americans to stand by the eagle.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad