Bald Eagle

Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Bald Eagle

Angell Williams/Flickr/CC by 2.0

The majestic bald eagle, the national bird of the United States, was nearly extinct in the 1970s due to illegal hunting and the effects of DDT poisoning. Thanks to recovery efforts and stronger federal protection, however, this large raptor is no longer endangered and continues to make a strong comeback. Learning more facts about this member of the Accipitridae bird family can help both birders and non-birders better appreciate the majesty, beauty, and power of the bald eagle.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
  • Common Name: Bald Eagle, Eagle, American Bald Eagle
  • Lifespan: 20 years
  • Size: 35-42 inches
  • Weight: 6.5-14 pounds
  • Wingspan: 80-85 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Bald Eagle Identification

Mature bald eagles are immediately recognizable, not because they're bald, but because their stark white heads give that appearance when contrasted with their chocolate brown bodies. Learning other field marks can help birders better identify these raptors at other ages when they look quite different.

Male and female birds look alike, though female birds are slightly larger, with a rich, dark brown body that may show buff edges on the feathers. The head, neck, and tail are bright, plain white, but could show faint spotting in younger birds or when feathers are dirty or worn. The eyes, bill, legs, and feet are bright yellow. The black talons are thick and powerful, and the bill can seem overly large for the bird's general size.

When first hatched, bald eagle chicks are covered with fluffy white down but quickly grow larger and develop mature feathers. Juvenile birds have mottled brown and white plumage and do not get the distinctive white head and tail until they are 4-5 years old when they are sexually mature and able to mate.

These raptors are fairly quiet and use a throaty, high pitched chatter call with a laugh-like cadence. The Hollywood long shriek often associated with bald eagles in movies is actually a red-tailed hawk.

Bald Eagle Habitat and Distribution

Bald eagles are fairly rare throughout the continental United States and Canada but are most often found near large, open lakes and rivers with good fish populations. Areas with scattered large trees for perching and nesting are especially preferred. Concentrations of the birds can be found in Florida, throughout Alaska, and near large waterways in the Midwest.

Migration Pattern

Canadian birds migrate seasonally into the United States and northern Mexico, but northern bald eagle populations along the Pacific Coast and into southern Alaska are often year-round residents if waterways remain open for easy fishing. Juvenile birds that have left their parents' care but have not yet mated may wander far from expected regions and could be spotted nearly anywhere.

Behavior

Bald eagles gather in large colonies when migrating or wherever an abundant food source can be found, though they may have squabbles over choice tidbits. They can often be seen hunting for fish or perched in trees with good fields of view, though they have an awkward, rocking gait on land and may run with their wings slightly spread for better balance. They soar on thermals looking for prey and hold their wings nearly level while airborne. While they do hunt, they are just as frequently pirates that will harass other raptors or predators to steal their prey for an easy meal.

Diet and Feeding

Bald eagles are opportunistic carnivores. They only eat meat, but will choose whatever prey may be easiest, including fish, small or medium-sized mammals, and a variety of birds, including gulls and waterfowl. These raptors will also eat carrion and may visit roadkill, gut piles left by hunters, or carcasses abandoned by other predators. They can tear prey apart both with their powerful bills as well as their talons.

Nesting

Bald eagles are monogamous birds that generally mate for life unless a pair is unable to produce eggs, and if one partner dies, the remaining partner will seek out a new mate. During courtship, these raptors have various flight displays including a fantastic cartwheeling fall where the pair locks talons in midair.

Mated pairs return to the same stick nest annually and will add to the nest each year, only starting a new nest when the old one finally collapses. Older nests can reach several feet in diameter and may weigh several tons. They are typically lined with softer materials including feathers or moss. Bald eagle nests may be built in tall trees or on cliff faces depending on the availability of regional nest sites.

Eggs and Young

Both parent birds incubate a single annual brood of 1-3 oval-shaped, plain white eggs for 30-45 days. After the eggs hatch, both parents will feed the young eaglets for 70-100 days until their first flight.

Bald Eagle Conservation

Bald eagles were severely affected by pesticides and persecution in the 1970s and 1980s, reaching endangered status, but strong efforts to restore these birds were successful and the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list in 2007. Today, these raptors are still victims of poaching and accidental or deliberate shootings, as well as other risks to raptors including pollution, collisions with wind turbines or power lines, contamination of their food supplies, and habitat loss. Lead poisoning from fishing lures and discarded bullet casings is also a grave threat to bald eagles and other large raptors. Constant vigilance is essential to continue to protect these birds and ensure their populations thrive.

Tips for Backyard Birders

Like all birds of prey, bald eagles are not generally found in backyards. Birders who live near large fishing lakes and rivers, however, may successfully attract these raptors with tall trees or platform perches in their yard with clear fields of view.

How to Find This Bird

Bald eagles can be challenging to find without proper preparation, but if birders are aware of successful nesting areas or popular hunting grounds, these birds can be very easy to see. Because bald eagles can be very site-loyal, they will return to the best nesting and feeding sites over and over, and eventually those sites may be visited by dozens or even hundreds of eagles, offering birders spectacular viewing opportunities. Watching the skies carefully for soaring raptors and noting the characteristic white head and tail will also help birders spot bald eagles on the move.

Bald Eagles in Culture

The bald eagle is easily recognized as the national bird of the United States, and it was given that honor on June 20, 1782, when Congress officially adopted the Great Seal of the United States with the American bald eagle prominently displayed in the center of the design. While there is a popular urban legend that Benjamin Franklin opposed this design and advocated for the wild turkey to become the national bird, this story is false. Instead, Franklin later wrote a letter to his daughter calling the bald eagle a bird of poor morals because of its scavenging and occasionally thieving behavior, and instead mentioned the wild turkey as a more noble and upstanding bird, but there was no movement to alter the Great Seal or remove the bald eagle from symbolic prominence.

Explore More Species in This Family

The Accipitridae bird family includes more than 240 species of eagles, hawks, goshawks, kites, vultures, and buzzards, and all these raptors can be fascinating to see. Birders can start with the complete list of eagle species, or investigate other related birds that include:

Don't miss any of our other detailed bird profiles for more facts and information about all your favorite ducks, penguins, hummingbirds, warblers, thrushes, owls, and more!