The Majestic Bald Eagle

Posted by Jay Turner, NGC Grader and Attributor, on 2/15/2008

Jay Turner looks back on the role of the majestic bald eagle, both in America’s history and its coinage up to the present day.

The image that has graced more United States coins than any other has gotten its own commemorative coinage. The United States Bald Eagle Commemorative Coin Program for 2008 offers three new designs for modern coin collectors.

Benjamin Franklin once referred to the bald eagle as “a bird of bad moral character,” in protest to its choice as the national bird. Still, the bald eagle has become an American icon since it was chosen as the United States national emblem by the Continental Congress in 1782. The eagle has been used to represent everything American, especially coinage. In the Coinage Act of 1792, the gold denominations were dubbed Eagle for $10, Half Eagle for $5, Quarter Eagle for $2.50. The law also provided that all silver and gold coinage must include a representation of the eagle. With this, every United States circulating coin from half dime to Double Eagle had images of the iconic bird. While through time and circumstances, the eagle is less often used on today’s coinage, in general, the standard of including the eagle is still applied today for every coin valued above 25 cents, with the exception of commemoratives.

While the American bald eagle was the national bird and a symbol of American nationality, the once common bird in the United States went from a population of more than 500,000 in the 1700s to less then 1,000 in the early 1960s. The bald eagle was in danger of becoming extinct due to shootings, contamination of water, poisons, and the pesticide known as DDT, which caused thinning of eagle shells — causing them to break during nesting. Human intervention was necessary to save the endangered eagle. The Environmental Protection laws and state laws that were eventually passed saved the bald eagle and other endangered species from extinction. The banning of DDT in the United States in 1972, and later in Canada, is credited for having the largest effect on the recovery of the species. However, shootings, power line electrocution, and in-air collisions have kept the species from a full recovery. By last estimates, there are over 20,000 bald eagles in the lower 48 United States. In 2007, the species was removed from the Endangered Species List. Yet before this in 2004, the Commemorative coin program was signed into law with the aspect of helping remove the birds from the endangered species list.

The 2008 Commemorative Bald Eagle coins were introduced and they included a $5 gold piece, a Silver Dollar, and a Half Dollar. The coins all feature eagles on both sides and surcharges added to the commemorative are earmarked for the American Eagle Foundation of Tennessee for continuing to protect and save bald eagles. While the Mint had service issues with their Web site during the release of these coins, the public was still very active in purchasing the product. It is unknown at this time how popular the coins will be in the future, but at this time they are popular and that’s why they are this month’s Modern Coin of the Month.