Today we’re celebrating our national bird, the bald eagle, for American Eagle Day. On June 20, 1782, the bald eagle was placed at the center of the Great Seal of the United States and remains a symbol of our proud country. After a dramatic recovery, bald eagles are found in every state but Hawaii, soaring high and inspiring the nation. Photo from the Gulkana Wild and Scenic River in Alaska by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management (@mypubliclands).

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On an overcast late-spring afternoon, a group of bird lovers from the Earth Conservation Corps are in a boat on Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River, and point out an osprey circling overhead. “This is like their summer vacation spot and where they have their young,” says Bob Nixon, in the boat. “Then they spend most of their lives in the Amazon.”

It wasn’t so long ago that the ospreys – and other large birds of prey known as raptors – avoided this place. The Anacostia, often called Washington’s forgotten river, was too polluted to support wildlife. Nearly nine miles long, the river flows from Maryland into the Potomac, but became infamous in the second half of the 20th century as one of the most neglected, trash-choked waterways in the United States – a blighted river amid blighted neighborhoods.

But in recent years, the Anacostia has seen a rebirth. Thanks to the efforts of the Earth Conservation Corps — which Nixon, a filmmaker and conservationist, started 25 years ago — there are now four osprey nests on the river’s Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. “We’ve turned this into a raptor hotel,” says Nixon.

In 1994, two years into the Earth Conservation Corps’ work, Washington was in the midst of a crack epidemic, with a murder rate topping 400 a year. At that low point in the city’s recent history, Nixon had the idea to bring the bald eagle back to the nation’s capital. It had disappeared decades earlier.

Between 1994 and 1998, members of the corps raised and released 16 bald eagles. Anthony Satterthwaite and Burrell Duncan fed the very first eaglets – hatched in Wisconsin and delivered to Washington to start the reintroduction program – by hiding in the woods and sending fish via a clothesline pulley system into the boxes where the baby birds were kept high up in a poplar tree. They couldn’t let the young birds see them, for fear that they’d imprint on humans.

When the birds were old enough, the boxes were opened.

“To see these birds fly away from this box they were in for three months – just joy, man,” says Satterthwaite. “Just joy.”

They named the eagles in memory of their fallen friends — Monique Johnson and the other corps members they’d lost over the years.

“We wasn’t supposed to live to see the age of 21,” says Satterthwaite. “We was just as endangered as this majestic bird. So it became very powerful and we connected the two, and that’s why we started our raptor education program with Rodney Stotts.”

This year, there are three eagle’s nests in Washington. A naming contest was held for one of the eaglets, which hatched March 15 in southwest Washington. The winning name: Spirit. Its parents are Liberty and Justice.

“We no longer have to name them after dead colleagues,” says Nixon.

In Washington, D.C., A Program In Which Birds And People Lift Each Other Up

Photos: Claire Harbage/NPR