To ancient Rome the eagle was a symbol of victory and was emblazoned on the standards its conquering legions carried. It was adopted as an imperial symbol by Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and by France and Germany among other countries. Its prestige lives on in modern heraldry; today the bald eagle, native only to North America, is the national bird of the United States, depicted on the country's Great Seal.
The eagle has always been regarded with respect and reverence by many different cultures. Early Persian and Egyptian art shows the eagle with its talons sunk into serpent or a dragon representing the triumph of good over evil. The ancient Greeks believed that the eagle was sacred to Zeus, god of the elements, and was the bearer of his thunderbolts. Peasants buried eagle wings in their fields as an offering to Zeus to protect their crops from damage by storms.
An eagle was always launched from the funeral pyre of a Roman emperor to carry his soul up to Olympus. There are many tales of eagles swooping down from the heavens as messengers of the gods to warn mortals of threatening disaster or to bring a gift of healing herbs. Some North American tribes regarded the eagle almost as a deity; only the bravest warriors were permitted to wear eagle feathers as rewards for their deeds. To invoke the rain gods the Zuni of New Mexico used four eagle feathers to represent the four winds.
Members of the hawk family, eagles have the characteristic powerful talons and hooked bill for catching prey and tearing it to pieces. Both male and female eagles are devoted parents, building huge nests for their families high in trees or on cliffs, feeding their young industriously and fussing over their nestling's first attempts at flight.
Found on almost all continents, eagles generally inhabit areas near water or high in mountains. Those living mainly near water supplement their favorite diet of fish with carrion, rodents, and small animals. Eagles of the mountains and other rocky areas mainly live on young mammals. The eagle has become a victim of progress. There has been a marked decline in its population caused by people spreading out and encroaching on nesting and breeding sites. Chemical contamination of the eagle's food supplies ahs adversely affected their reproductive systems. Human predators, too, have taken their toll. One of the most honored of all birds is now rapidly diminishing in number.