Because of their fierce demeanor and large size, eagles have long been highly regarded as a symbol of power and grace by diverse societies around the world. Eagles have figured prominently in religion, mythology, art, literature, and other expressions of human culture.
In North America, for example, the bald eagle is an important symbol in many Native American cultures. Many tribes believe that the feathers of this bird have powerful qualities, and they use these to ornament clothing and hats, or will hold a single feather in the hand as a cultural symbol and source of strength. Various tribes of the Pacific coast know the bald eagle as the “thunder bird,” and they accord it a prominent place on totem poles.
Today, most North Americans regard the bald eagle as a valued species, and it is even a national symbol of the United States. However, some people consider eagles to be pests, believing the birds to be predators of domestic animals such as sheep, or of economically important fish. For these reasons, many eagles have been killed using guns, traps, and poison. Fortunately, these misguided attitudes about eagles are now in an extreme minority, and very few people still persecute these magnificent predators.
However, eagles and many other species of raptors are also damaged by other, less direct, human influences. These include the toxic effects of insecticidesused in agriculture, some of which accumulate in wild animals and affect them or their reproduction. Eagles have also been poisoned by eating poisoned carcasses set out to kill other scavengers, such as coyotes or wolves. Eagles are also affected by ecological changes in their necessary breeding, migrating, and wintering habitats, especially damages caused by agriculture, urbanization, and forestry.
Because of these and other damaging effects of human activities, most of the world’s species of eagles are much less abundant than they were a century or so ago. Many local populations of these magnificent birds have become endangered or have actually been extirpated. In more extreme cases of endangerment, some species are at risk of total biological extinction. The monkey-hunting harpy eagle, for example, is an extremely rare bird that requires extensive tracts of tropical rainforest in South America and is endangered because of its critically small and declining population, which has resulted mostly from deforestation.