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From the September 2005 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:

 

A Visit to the Alaska Raptor Center

By Mike Nourse

 

A close look at an adult eagle's head. The picture looks a little hazy
because it was taken through one way glass.

 

    As numismatists, we are used to looking at eagles on our coins. I did not make a count of any kind, but I would estimate that about half of United States coins have an eagle on their reverses. These eagles range from the amusingly pitiful eagle on the Franklin half to the great flying eagles found on Gobrecht dollars and $20 Saint Gaudens gold coins. An eagle even made a brief visit to the obverse of a coin when small cents were introduced in the 1850’s.

    Why do we look so closely at the eagles on our coins? Simple – grading! On most coins which feature an eagle, the details remaining on said eagle are used at least in part to determine a final grade for the coin. For some coin series which lack useful design elements on the obverse, such as the Washington quarter, the amount of feather detail remaining on the eagle on the reverse is the primary determinant of grade in circulated condition.

    So, as much time as we all spend looking at metallic eagles to determine how many feathers are still visible and how much wing detail remains, I decided to go to the Alaska Raptor Center to get a look at some real bald eagles up close.

 

A bald eagle on the shoreline waiting for something delicious to come nearby.

    Sitka has American bald eagles all over the place, in abundance. Right now I am a bit further south in Petersburg, and there are even more eagles here. However, in the wild, I don’t want to get any closer than about 30 feet away to avoid stressing or scaring the bird, or worse yet having it stress or scare me. To get really close it is necessary to see these birds in captivity where they are in cages and used to the presence of humans nearby.

    So, what was learned about eagles at the Alaska Raptor Center? Well, besides getting some good close up pictures of several individual eagles, a visitor to the center may attend several short presentations given by employees and volunteers. As one would expect, none of the presentations or displays had any information about the use of bald eagles on United States coinage.

 

An approximately four year old female eagle with her handler.

    The good news in the bald eagle world is that they are no longer considered an endangered species; they are now merely threatened. The estimated North American  population is now up to  100,000 individuals with over half of them calling Alaska home even though they do not receive permanent fund checks in October. However, even though the birds are no longer on the endangered list, don’t even think about killing one of them! To do so will result in a $100,000 fine and five years of making license plates in the local jail.

 

You can get a sense of how large this young eagle's head is.

    As all of us in Alaska know, these are huge birds. Their weight is generally in the low teens of pounds which is awfully heavy for a bird, considering that their bones are hollow. Their wings can span nine feet for a young adult though their wingspan actually decreases as they mature. When the birds are young they have longer wing feathers to help them learn the fine art of flying, which are similar to the training wheels on a kid’s bicycle. As the youngsters age, these long feathers are replaced by shorter ones which reduce the wingspan by about a foot giving the bird more maneuverability to better catch their unfortunate quarry. Their height is typically three to three and a half feet tall with the females being larger than the males.

 

This adult has his wings partially open to dry. The left wing has been injured, so this bird can't fly.

    Eagles are well known for having exceptional eyesight, hence the saying ‘eagle eyed’ for people who have sharp vision. The density of cones (light receptors used for color vision during daylight) in the back of eagle’s eyes is vastly higher than that found in humans. Assuming for the moment that an eagle can read, it would be able to read a newspaper headline from across a football stadium. Such vision gives the eagle the ability to spot small unfortunate rodents and other tasty morsels either from a safe perch at the top of a tree or while circling far above the ground. In contrast, the quantity of rods (black and white light receptors used in darkness) in their eyes is only marginally more than human eyes, hence their night vision is little if any better than ours, which generally rules out a midnight snack except in summer.

 

Lucky bird picking up a snack.

    The fairly large eyes of an eagle take up quite a bit of space inside their skulls, leaving limited room for musculature to move their eyes form side to side. While their eyes do have some side to side mobility, this shortcoming is made up for by the ability to turn their heads more than half way around, with a 210 degree range of motion in either direction. This compares to about 90 degrees for humans and a whopping 270 degrees for owls. Both eagles and owls have fourteen vertebrae in their necks compared to a measly seven in humans, but the owl’s vertebrae are spaced a bit further apart giving them that enviable range of motion.

    Bald eagles live about 25 to 30 years in the wild on average and quite a bit longer in captivity. It takes them five years to develop the well known white head and tail feathers that make them so easy to identify. Before that time, they are pretty much brown all over and somewhat resemble golden eagles, only twice the size. They generally mate for life though they will find a replacement for a deceased spouse.

    Now it is time for us all to give thanks to the second Continental Congress for selecting the bald eagle as our national emblem in 1782 over the vociferous objections of Benjamin Franklin who much preferred the turkey. Eagles are scavenger birds of prey, and Dr. Franklin and others thought that this would portray a rather negative image of the United States on the worldwide scene. As it turns out, bald eagles are only found in North America, so only Canadians and Mexicans were aware of their poor table manner

    Just think how different American numismatics would be if Franklin had been successful. You have to admit that it would sound strange to divide the bust dollar series into the small turkey and heraldic turkey sub types. Now, I wonder what the Gobrecht dollar and Saint Gaudens $20 gold piece would look like with turkeys on the reverse???

    

   

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