Creature Feature – Bald Eagle


Haliaeetus lencocephalus
Range: North America
Wingspan: 6-8 feet
Weight: 9-14 pounds (females are about 25% larger than males)
Lifespan: 20-30 in the wild; up to 50 years in captivity

The Bald Eagle formerly lived and bred throughout most of North America, but is now restricted as a breeding bird to Aleutian, Alaska, parts of northern and eastern Canada, northern United States and Florida. They are most numerous in Alaska, followed by Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida, Oregon, and Washington in that order.

The Bald Eagle is a large, blackish eagle with a white head and tail. Young birds lack the white head and tail and somewhat resemble an adult golden eagle. Golden Eagles have booted (feathers down to the foot) legs, and Bald Eagles do not. It takes 4-5 years to get adult plumage. Their diet is generally fish caught on the fly as they skim just above the surface of the water. Diet also includes seabirds, waterfowl, small mammals, and carrion.

Eagles re-use nests and add to them each year. Well-established nests may grow as large as 10 feet across, 20 feet deep, and weigh over 2 tons! An eagle can see objects 3 to 4 times farther away than a human, can fly to altitudes of 10,000 feet, and reach speeds of 50 mph when hunting and 100 mph when diving. Eagles make a cackling sound, and because of their un-majestic calls they are often dubbed in Hollywood movies with the calls of Red Tailed Hawks.

Bald Eagles were declared endangered in 1967, mostly due to food contamination by the pesticide DDT. DDT accumulates in the fat tissues of the animals that ingest it. It affects the female’s ability to absorb calcium, and results in thin eggs that break during the incubation process or fail to hatch. DDT was banned in the USA in 1972, and bald eagles have since recovered in most areas & were taken off the list in March of 2007. The number of nesting pairs in the lower 48 states increased from barely 400 in 1963 to an estimated 10,000 pairs at the time of their de-listing. Even though they have been de-listed, bald eagles are still protected by both the Migratory Bird Act and the Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act.

It is illegal to possess feathers from eagles. Native Americans may send applications to the National Eagle Repository in Denver Colorado to obtain feathers, parts, or whole birds to be used in religious ceremonies. Eagle feathers and carcasses are sent to the Repository to be cataloged and distributed. The wait to obtain a whole bird can be more than three years.

The Bald Eagle was adopted as the national symbol of the United States on June 20, 1782. Because bald eagles occasionally steal food from other species, Benjamin Franklin thought they were of “bad moral character” and a bad choice for our national symbol. He suggested the wild turkey instead. Today, twelve states include the bald eagle on their official emblems.

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