Fun Facts About Bald Eagles

eagle, fun facts
Credit: Don Buscher

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class:  Aves

Order: Falconiformes

Family: Accipitridae

Genus: Haliaeetus

Species: Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Subspecies Southern Bald Eagle (H. l. leucocephalus), Northern Bald Eagle (H. l. washingtoniensis)

Basic bald eagle facts:

Bald eagles are one of the large birds of prey native to North America, with a wingspan of about 7 feet (2 meters). (They are second in size only to the California condor and are about the same size as the golden eagle.)

These regal-looking birds aren't really bald, but their white-feathered heads gleam in contrast to their chocolate-brown body and wings. Their legs and bills are bright yellow.

Young birds have mostly dark heads and tails; their brown wings and bodies are mottled with white in varying amounts. Bald eagle babies attain adult plumage in about five years.

Bald eglets leave the nest at about 12 weeks old.

Bald eagles are monogamous and pairs mate for life.

Adult bald eagles weigh 8 to 14 pounds (3.6 to 6.4 kilograms) with the female eagle the larger and heavier of the two genders.

Bald eagles can live a long time, with a longevity record of 28 years in the wild and 36 years in captivity.

Bald eagles' call consists of weak chirping whistles, harsher and shriller from young birds than adults. Calls can be between mating eagles, or to warn of a predator.

They have excellent eyesight and the frontal setting of their eyes gives them excellent binocular vision as well as peripheral vision.

These eagles are powerful fliers; they can reach speeds over 35 mph (56 kph) during level flight and between 75 to 99 mph (121 to 159 kph) in a hunting dive.

Bald eagles hunt cooperatively — one bird will scare prey and another will grab it with its sharp talons.

Bald eagles' favorite food is fish, but they will also eat other birds, ducks, muskrats and sometimes turtles. They also they eat carrion (dead animals) willingly, and are notorious for robbing osprey of their catches.

The eagle's sharp, hooked beak helps it tear through its prey.

The bald eagle's closest relatives include the African fish-eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) of sub-Saharan Africa and the white-tailed sea-eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) of Eurasia.

Where bald eagles live:

Unique to North America, Bald Eagles live in coastal and lake areas from Baja California and Florida north to Newfoundland and Alaska. Within this geographical span, they are nearly always found near water, along rivers, lakes or the coast and coastal marshes, reservoirs and large lakes. They also pass over mountains and plains during migration. The northern and interior populations may migrate to open water in the winter months.

Bald eagles breed in much of Alaska (where they are most common), Canada, the Pacific Northwest, along the East Coast, the Mississippi River, the Gulf Coast, around the Great Lakes, and in other areas with sufficient water and wildlife. The birds winter along the coasts and across much of the United States. Some reach northwestern Mexico. [Photos: Bald Eagles of the Mighty Mississippi]

Conservation Status: Recovered (Least Concern)

Bald eagles are an endangered species success story in bringing back a population from the brink of eradication.

At the time of their adoption as a symbol of the United States in the late 1700s, there were an estimated 25,000 to 75,000 birds in the lower 48 states.

Bald eagle numbers plummeted due to habitat destruction, hunting and the use of the poison DDT (used to dust crops), which caused eagle shells to thin and often break before hatching.  (DDT use was banned in 1972.) The bald eagle was listed on the Endangered Species List in 1967, when there were only 417 nesting pairs in existence.

In the 17 years since they were declared endangered in most of the country, bald eagles have undergone a strong increase in numbers and an expansion in range. Private organizations, state, and federal agencies counted 4,450 occupied nesting territories, a ten-fold increase from the 1963 low.

In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service down-listed bald eagles from endangered to threatened in most of the United States, and in 2007 they were removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.

They continue to be protected in the United States by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, however, and illegal hunting and loss of wetland habitat are still threats.

Odd facts:

The bald eagle has been the national emblem of the United States since 1782 (winning out over the objections of Benjamin Franklin who supported the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)) and a spiritual symbol for native people for far longer than that.

The bald eagle builds the largest nest of any North American bird, up to 13 feet (4 m) deep, 8.2 feet (2.5 m) wide, and 1.1 tons in weight.

A bald eagle will harass a hunting osprey until the smaller raptor drops its prey in midair, where the eagle swoops it up. A bald eagle may even snatch a fish directly out of an osprey's talons. Fishing mammals (even people sometimes) can also lose prey to bald eagle piracy.

The bald eagle is a sacred bird in some North American cultures, and its feathers, like those of the golden eagle, are central to many religious and spiritual customs among Native Americans. Eagles are considered spiritual messengers between gods and humans by some cultures.

Other resources:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Bald Eagle

US Fish and Wildlife Service Species Profile: Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle Fact Sheet – Smithsonian National Zoo

American Eagle Foundation

IUCN Red List – Bald Eagle

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