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Eagles Again Flying High over America

The American bald eagle, a national symbol since 1782, was once almost wiped out by hunters and pesticide poisoning. Today the great bird is not only surviving but thriving. Four decades after it was declared endangered, the American bald eagle is off the Endangered Species List. VOA's Paul Sisco reports.

This is a momentous week for America's bald eagles, and the legislation that has protected them. The country's national symbol is officially off the endangered species list.

Two hundred years ago upwards of a half million eagles soared across American skies -- serving as an apt symbol of freedom and expansion for a rapidly growing nation.

But by 1963 only 400 nesting pairs remained in the lower 48 states, due to loss of habitat, hunting and the use of pesticides. The chemical DDT made eagle egg shells thin, resulting in nest loss. Congress eventually banned the dangerous pesticide and included the bald eagle on the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Now due to the protections the act provides, eagles are back in numbers sufficient to take them off the endangered species list.

"We're all excited about it. It is a great success story," says Deb Shaeffer of the National Audubon Society.

It is a development so exciting that federal officials and environmentalists marked the occasion with a ceremony at the memorial in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson.

"The eagle has returned,” said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. “It is my honor to announce the Department of Interior's decision to remove the American Bald Eagle from the endangered species list."

Recovery programs across the United States, many run by volunteers, have been a big part of this success story.

John Aikin operates a breeding program at the San Francisco Zoo. "I know more about the birds in this state,” says Aikin. “There were about 38 nesting when we started the program. Today, there are more than 200, so they are doing much, much better."

And nationwide, after decades of conservation efforts, there are now some 10,000 nesting pairs -- a 25-fold increase in the last 40 years.

Young and old took part in the ceremony in Washington. So did special guest, Challenger, a rescued bald eagle used to educate the public and cared for by the non-profit American Eagle Foundation.

"It's a big day, it's a long time coming and it's a big celebration,” says Foundation President Al Cecere. “It's taken over 30 years to protect the eagle. A lot of state, federal and private groups have been working coast to coast, all with passion and dedication, so it's a great day. Hopefully our national bird will fly strong and free for future generations."