Bald eagles are big, rowdy birds that like big water. They plunder harbors, lakes, wetlands, and rivers looking for fish, and they’re not above stealing from other animals—even people. Eagles live by their wits, stay on the move, and sail the skies, looking for loot. Read on to learn more about these swashbuckling birds.
Perhaps an eagle’s most extraordinary feature is its eyes. They’re about the same size as your eyes, but they have five times more light-gathering cells. This means they can see farther and more clearly than you. Evidence suggests eagles can spot a rabbit two miles away! In addition, an eagle’s eye has two centers of focus, which means it can see forward and sideways at the same time.
Bald eagles are large and in charge. They’re about as tall as your 3-year-old brother, they weigh more than a jug of milk, and their wings stretch farther than the height of your front door. Among America’s birds of prey, only California condors are bigger.
Never shake hands with an eagle. Their talons are needle-sharp, and their grip is strong enough to drive nails through concrete. Eagles are also equipped with hooked, razor-edged beaks that are perfect for ripping flesh from fish or geese.
Bald eagles aren’t picky eaters. Fish make up most of their diet, but they won’t turn their beaks up at geese, rabbits, or whatever meat they can find—even if it’s been dead for a bit. And, eagles aren’t shy about stealing food. They often swipe meals from other animals—even eagles—and have been known to snatch fish from anglers and ducks from hunters. As a last resort, eagles hunt for themselves, swooping down to pluck fish from the water or pin injured geese to the ground.
When northern lakes and rivers freeze, eagles migrate south to find food. Missouri is one of America’s hottest eagle hangouts, with nearly 4,000 eagles spending winter here. Many arrive in December and gather in noisy flocks near large bodies of water. Most eagles return north in the spring, but about 500 live in Missouri year-round.
To impress their mates, eagles perform spectacular courtship displays. Eagle couples fly high into the air, lock their talons, and cartwheel toward the ground. Just before they splat, the lovebirds let go and swoop up into the sky. Eagles perform this daring display every year even though they stick with the same mate for life.
Newlywed eagles build relatively small nests. But each year, the couple adds more sticks to the old structure. After several years, the nest becomes ginormous. A nest in Florida measured 10 feet across and 20 feet deep. One in Ohio was used for 34 years until the tree it was in blew down. That nest weighed more than a minivan!
Mama eagles lay two (sometimes three) eggs in March or April. When the babies hatch about 35 days later, they’re covered with fuzzy gray down. Mom and pop tag-team hunting for and feeding the nestlings. To keep the nest tidy, young eagles poop over the side, leaving a spray of whitewash on vegetation below. Although they grow flight feathers in a few weeks, it takes five years for young eagles to obtain the white heads and tails of adults.
Nestlings practice flying by flapping their wings and hopping from one side of the nest to the other or to nearby limbs. This builds strength, balance, and—most importantly—the ability to land without crashing. After 12 weeks of being nest-bound, young eagles take off on their first flight. Their parents feed them for a few more weeks, but after that, the young pirates are on their own, sailing the skies, eagle-eyed, looking for food to loot.
Nichole LeClair Terrill