Bald Eagle Skull
Bald Eagle Skull

“In the air you see a fishing hawk flying away with a fish, and a bald eagle pursuing to take it from him; the bald eagle has always his head and tail white, and they carry such a luster with them that the white, and they be discerned as far as you can see the shape of the bird, and seems as if it were without feathers, and thence it has its name bald eagle” – The History of Virginia, In Four Parts by Robert Beverely (Beverley 1705:120)

Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) remains have been excavated from several early James Fort features, such as the Soldier Pits, that contain artifacts associated with the Starving Time. Sixty seven bald eagle bones have also been identified in the large collection of faunal remains from the colony’s Second Well, which dates to the years immediately following the Starving Time. The faunal material from this well also included bones from other large raptors such as hawks, owls, and vultures.

It is not clear why so many eagle bones have been found in Jamestown’s Second Well. Several of these bones have visible cut marks, so it is possible that these remains represent the use of bald eagles as an emergency food source for the starving colonists of Jamestown. Eagles were considered a taboo food in seventeenth-century England, suggesting that in Virginia, only a desperate individual would have consumed the large bird. Cut marks on the bones could be the result of removing feathers for use in trade exchanges with the Virginia Indians, who wore the plumage as personal adornments, or for the manufacture of bone tools. These large birds of prey may also simply have been hunted in order to prevent them from killing young livestock or competing for wild prey.

Another possible explanation is that the raptors were the result of attempts at falconry. There is little clear evidence for falconry at Jamestown, but in seventeenth-century England, falconry was common, primarily as a high-status sport. The gentlemen in Virginia would have been familiar with the practice of capturing live raptors and hunting with them, and this could have contributed valuable game to the colonists’ diet.

Today, both living and deceased bald eagle specimens are protected under the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the 1961 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which make it illegal to import, export, take, sell, purchase, or barter any eagle parts including feathers, bones, nests, or eggs. Exceptions to these Acts are determined by the US Federal Wildlife Services who issue permits for scientific research, religious use by Native Americans, and falconry. Bald eagles were an endangered species, disappearing from the James River and many other areas by the 1970s, and these protections and other environmental regulations have been crucial to their return.

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