Mature bald eagles have a dark brown body with white head and tail. The large, hooked bill, strong talons, and irises of the eyes are yellow. Females are larger than males, but otherwise the sexes look alike. In flight, bald eagles soar on rising warm air currents on flattened wings (not holding them V-shaped). Juveniles are all brown, with white speckles. Voice is a series of chirps or a loud screaming whistle.
Length: 36 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail); wingspan: 84 inches.
Bald eagles are usually observed statewide near lakes, rivers, and marshes, particularly during the winter.
Habitat and Conservation
Bald eagles are usually seen near lakes, rivers, and marshes as they forage for fish or carrion. The bald eagle’s return to the Lower 48 is a conservation success story: Although historically about 20,000 pairs nested in the United States, by the 1950s only about 3,000 pairs were nesting. Today, over 10,000 pairs nest in the United States annually, including about 200 in our state, as of 2010.
Bald eagles prey on a variety of live animals and also eat carrion. Fish and carrion make up most of the diet, but reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, other birds, and large invertebrates such as crayfish are also eaten.
Uncommon migrant. Though bald eagles have made a dramatic comeback on our continent, their presence is still vulnerable within our state, and they remain a Species of Conservation Concern.
Bald eagles reach maturity at age 4 or 5 and usually breed near where they were born. They generally mate for life, but if one of the pair disappears or dies, the survivor finds another mate. Courtship includes special calls and flight displays. The nest is large and can be 13 feet deep and 8 feet across. A pair produces 1–3 eggs annually, but rarely do all three chicks reach maturity. Young bald eagles acquire adult plumage at about age 5. Bald eagles can live for more than 30 years.
As a cherished U.S. national symbol, the bald eagle’s cultural value is hard to estimate.
In some Native American cultures, bald eagles are held sacred, and their feathers are important symbols.
Humans played a large role in the decline of eagles in the 1900s. These birds were shot, trapped, and poisoned, and they also declined as a result of pesticide-related nesting failures. But humans have also enabled their population comeback, enacting laws to ban the most troublesome pesticides and protecting them from persecution.
Bald eagles can suffer from lead poisoning when they consume carrion shot by hunters with lead shot.
They lose nesting, hunting, and roosting habitat because of shoreline development.
As scavengers and top predators, bald eagles suffered from pesticides that accumulated in the bodies of the many insects, insect eaters, and other small predators beneath them in the food chain. They offer a classic example of how some molecules can concentrate in the bodies of animals at the top of food chains.