Bald Eagle

Haliaeetus leucocephalus

(c) Howard B. Eskin
  • ACCIPITRIDAE
  • Hawks, Osprey, Harriers, Eagles, Kites
  • Falconiformes
  • Águila cabeza blanca
  • Pygargue à tête blanche
Introduction
The Bald Eagle is not only the well-known symbol of the United States of America, but also one of the best-known success stories in wildlife conservation. With a seven-foot wingspan, this massive bird of prey may now be seen soaring in every state and province in North America at some point during the year.
(c) Howard B. Eskin
Appearance Description
The Bald Eagle is not “bald.” Rather, the adult has a gleaming white, feathered head, which contrasts dramatically with its dark brown body and huge yellow bill. A white tail and massive yellow legs and feet complete the unmistakable adult plumage. During this species’ first four years as an immature bird, the plumage is mottled brown and white over the entire body, especially underneath. Both head and tail are mainly dark during these years. Plumage is similar for males and females. Females, however, are larger than males. A large female might be 38 inches long and weigh 14 pounds, while a small male might only be 28 inches long and weigh 6.5 pounds. The eagle’s wingspan averages just under 7 feet.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution

Today, Bald Eagles occur across the continent of North America and into northern Mexico. While Alaska and parts of Canada have long enjoyed healthy Bald Eagle populations, this magnificent bird was a rare sight in the lower 48 states during much of the 20th century. In 1970 the species began to increase, leading to the broad distribution we see today.

 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
Bald Eagles usually live near large bodies of water, including coastal regions, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, though local populations occur in dry, open country. They are found in a diverse array of areas from the windswept Aleutians to dense swamps in Florida.
 
Feeding

Bald Eagles eat a wide variety of meat obtained in different ways. They prefer fish and will wade in the water to capture prey. They also capture and eat mammals and large birds such as ducks. Bald Eagles will not hesitate to steal food from other creatures. In addition, they scavenge carrion.

Reproduction
A Bald Eagle pair that nests successfully can remain together for many years until one bird dies. The remaining bird will then seek a new mate. During courtship, these eagles perform spectacular flight displays, clasping talons and tumbling through the air. Eagles build huge nests, usually in large trees. They may reuse a nest for many years. The female lays 1 to 3 white eggs that are incubated by both parents for about 3 weeks. Emerging from the egg as fuzzy, awkward hatchlings, the young are ready to fly in 10 to 12 weeks. Both parents are diligent protectors and providers.
Migration
Bald Eagles living along North American coasts are usually permanent residents, while inland birds migrate south in the fall. Most of the birds that nest across Canada withdraw to the United Sates and Mexico for the winter.
CBC Graph
Graph Legend
Annual Population Indices
  • 330,000
  • 330,000
  • Increasing population, no current conservation concerns
Population Status Trends
From near extinction in the lower 48 United States in the middle of the 20th century, this species has made a remarkable recovery. In 1963 there were only 417 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states; currently, there are at least 7,066 nesting pairs. Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey data confirm a significant increase in population numbers.
 
An explanation of the Annual Population Indices graph displayed to the right can be found here.
Conservation Issues
Loss of habitat, shooting, and especially poisoning by the pesticide DDT, were responsible for this species’ once-precipitous decline. Increased legal protection, including placing the species on the Endangered Species List and banning the use of DDT, has brought this bird back from the edge. In 1995 the bird was reclassified as “Threatened;” today, it has been removed from both the Endangered and Threatened Species Lists altogether.
What You Can Do
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our What you Can do page. 
More Information
Visit our the Audubon Field Guides page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Buehler, D. A. 2000. Bald Eagle (Halieaeetus leucocephalus). In The Birds of North America, No. 564 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000.   The Sibley Guide to the Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Conservation Status References
Buehler, D. A. 2000. Bald Eagle (Halieaeetus leucocephalus). In The Birds of North America, No. 564 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000.   The Sibley Guide to the Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.