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One Picture

American Eagle
A new show on PBS’s NATURE series provides an intimate look at the struggles and success of an avian icon.

A bald eagle.
James Donald © EBC

American Eagle is a soaring tribute to our national emblem, offering sweeping aerial shots of the bird’s domain and intimate looks at individual families through a 75-foot-high eagle cam.

Complementing the majestic cinematography—taken by Emmy Award–winning photographer Neil Rettig—is the poignant history of the bald eagle. First adopted by Congress in the 1780s as a national symbol of strength and independence, bald eagles were later vilified and killed by North American settlers in the 1800s.

Bald eagles.
James Donald © EBC

In 1940, Congress banned the killing and selling of bald eagles by passing the Bald Eagle Protection Act. After World War II, however, eagles faced what was perhaps a more insidious foe: the insecticide DDT. Widely spread across acres of crops, the chemical made its way into the food chain, washing into nearby waterways and contaminating fish. Eagles preying on fish became poisoned, laying eggs with paper-thin shells that broke during incubation. It was just one more insult to a meager population consisting of about 400 pairs and already suffering from the effects of habitat loss and hunting.

Recognizing the species’ bleak fate, the federal government listed the raptor as endangered after the the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973. That move, along with the 1972 banning of DDT, helped pave the way for a comeback that has resulted in a population of approximately 10,000 nesting pairs today. In 2007 the United States celebrated the bird's triumphant recovery by delisting it.

Portrait of a female bald eagle.
© Neil Rettig

American Eagle specifically homes in on a few eagle couples living near the Upper Mississippi River. The plight of a male eagle and his one-eyed partner—eagles mate for life—is a riveting segment revealing how the birds cope with bitter, bleak winters as well as manmade perils. Footage of another couple is also mesmerizing: In nature’s own version of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the couple’s two chicks vie for resources. The first hatchling is a female; the second, a male, emerges two days later. As the larger of the two sexes by nature, the sister attacks her brother relentlessly, demanding the lion's share of the food being served by a seemingly indifferent mother.

The documentary does a masterful job of blending the harsh realities facing eagles with their daily successes and ends on an uplifting note: unforgettable footage that shows eagles taking advantage of a season of plentiful prey by participating in what can only be likened to a rugby match, passing, dropping, and stealing some unfortunate coots in midair.

American Eagle airs November 16 at 8 p.m. on PBS’s NATURE series. NATURE is produced by Thirteen/WNET, New York.

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