The bald eagle is a classic icon of the United States, standing for strength, courage, and freedom. Chosen in 1782 as a symbol for our national emblem, today the bald eagle is depicted on a variety of official U.S. items, including passports, quarters, and the one-dollar bill.
Bald eagles are large, predatory raptors that are recognizable for their brown body and wings, white head and tail, and hooked yellow beak. Their feet, which are also yellow, are equipped with sharp black talons. Juvenile bald eagles look very different from adults—they are almost entirely brown, with occasional white markings on the undersides of their wings and chest. As the juvenile gets older, the bill turns from dark brownish-black to yellow and the head and tail turn white. Bald eagles grow to about 2.5 to 3 feet (0.7 to 0.9 meters) in height, and they have an impressive wingspan of 6.5 feet (two meters). Female bald eagles are larger than the males, but share the same coloration.
Bald eagles are North American birds. Their range extends from the Mexico border through the United States and Canada. The birds are extremely populous in Alaska. They can be seen year-round in Alaska, along the East and West coasts, the Rocky Mountains, and the Mississippi River. The rest of the United States only sees bald eagles during the winter and their migration.
Bald eagles like lakes—big lakes. During the summer, they can be seen soaring above lakes and in nearby trees. They prefer lakes and reservoirs with lots of fish and surrounding forests. In the winter, bald eagles can be seen around unfrozen lakes and hunting along coastlines, reservoirs, and rivers. During their migration, bald eagles are seen near all types of water habitats.
Bald eagles love fish. These birds are opportunistic predators, and when fish aren't available, they'll eat whatever they can catch, including small birds and rodents. Bald eagles are also scavengers that will feed on carrion. If they see an opportunity, bald eagles may even steal food from other birds such as osprey.
Bald eagles are solitary, but monogamous animals. Although they spend winters and migrations alone, bald eagles maintain the same breeding pair year after year. A mated eagle pair finds a nesting site and produces offspring each year. If one of the pair dies, the surviving bald eagle will look for a new mate in the next breeding season.
The nests, also called aeries, are built on the tops of trees. The pair uses sticks and twigs to construct a platform nest. Some pairs return to the same nest year after year. Over time, an eagle's nest can be six feet across and six feet high, and can weigh over a ton. Bald eagles normally lay two or three eggs, which are incubated for about 35 days. Depending on the location, the eggs are laid in the winter or spring. Bald eagle eggs and chicks are not often threatened by predators, as the parents are almost always on the nest and are quite large, powerful birds.
For about two and a half months, the parents will care for the chicks by bringing food to the nest. The chicks take their time leaving the nest. After approximately 12 weeks, they work their way out onto the branches near the nest. They'll learn to fly, but stay in the nearby area. The parents continue to provide some food until the young are independent.
Young eagles are on their own until they are about five years old. During their juvenile years, they will go through several color changes and molts. At about five years of age, they'll look for a mate.
Bald eagles can live for about 20 to 30 years in the wild and even longer in captivity.
The bald eagle was previously listed under the Endangered Species Act, but was delisted in 2007 due to recovery efforts. It is not considered threatened or endangered. Though their population is increasing, bald eagles in the wild face a lot of threats that reduce their lifespan, including chemical pollutants such as mercury, persistent organic chemicals, heavy metals, and DDT (an insecticide).
One of our nation's founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, disliked the idea of the bald eagle as the national symbol. Benjamin Franklin said, "I wish the eagle had not been chosen as the representative of this country. He is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly." Instead his first choice was the turkey, which he said was “a much more respectable bird and a true native of the country.”
The Cornell Lab or Ornithology
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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