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Friday, July 2, 1999 Published at 22:06 GMT 23:06 UK

World: Americas

Eagle's bright future

Predator: But this one isn't after the president

Americans have found extra cause to celebrate the Independence Day holiday weekend this year after President Bill Clinton announced their national symbol, the bald eagle, is "back from the brink" of extinction.

[ image: Presidential seal: Historic link over centuries]
Presidential seal: Historic link over centuries
Speaking at a White House celebration, Mr Clinton said that the famous bird of prey was now "thriving in virtually every state of the union".

The president, flanked by a 10-year-old bald eagle named Challenger, said that the species would now be removed from the national endangered species list after a 30-year plan to save it from extinction.

Saying that the final decision would be taken in 2000, he said: "It's hard to think of a better way to celebrate the birth of a nation than to celebrate the rebirth of our national symbol.

"The return of the bald eagle is a fitting cap to a century of environmental stewardship.

"Believe it or not, Ben Franklin wanted our national symbol to be a turkey. The press would be having a field day with that to the present day, wouldn't they?"

Protected species

While the bald eagle will be removed from the endangered list, it will still be protected by federal laws which prohibits its taking, killing, possesson or transporation, alive or dead.

[ image: Killer: DDT blamed for eagle deaths]
Killer: DDT blamed for eagle deaths
The Continental Congress of 1782 named the bald eagle as America's national symbol at a time when an estimated 500,000 dominated the skies.

In less than 200 years the species had been reduced to just 417 breeding pairs in 48 states. Many had been victims of the pesticide DDT.

Stocks of the species began to recover after the introduction of tougher environmental laws and the banning of DDT in the early 1970s.

Breeding pairs are now believed to number 5,800 and environmentalists say that the bald eagle's return is a mark that America is cleaning up its environmental act.

The eagle, which has a wingspan of up to 80 inches, has a long history of association with American peoples.

Native American tribes used its tail feathers in ceremonial dress and a lone feather was believed to hold great power.

But the bird has also been the victim of myths which have attributed it with great strength it does not possess.

Popular stories suggest that it has been known to carry off livestock and even infants.

But scientists say its lifting power is probably no more than five pounds.

Despite the celebration, not everything went entirely to plan for the president - the eagle proudly perched beside him bit his left hand.

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