The Bald Eagle, America’s symbol of freedom and democracy, is a majestic bird and a fierce predator. On June 20, 1782, it was chosen to be the emblem for the United States’ official seal. It’s penchant for being a scavenger, stealing food from other birds, almost cost it the noble title. Benjamin Franklin didn’t think having a thief as a symbol for the New World was appropriate and instead suggested the turkey.
The bird of prey’s name is a bit deceptive since it has snowy white feathers on its head and is not at all bald. The word “bald” is from an old English word “balde” which means white, and its scientific name, Hailaeetus leucocephalus translates as hali (sea), aeetos (eagle), leukos (white), and cephalos (head): basically, a seabird with a white head.
The Bald Eagle has a life span of about 28 years in the wild. A large bird, its body is between 34 to 43 inches long with an incredible wingspan of six to eight feet. It can weigh between six and 14 pounds. These birds are usually found by bodies of water where they can scavenge for carrion and use their strong, sharp talons to pluck fish from streams and lakes. They can be found in Florida swamps, edges of forests in southeastern Alaska, islands without trees in the Aleutian Islands, and even in dry areas such as Arizona, where there are desert rivers nearby.
As with most birds, Bald Eagles tend to prefer high ground for both their home and hunting. To get a “bird’s eye view,” they will usually settle on a high perch to search for prey, then swoop down to catch it with their talons. Sometimes they may wade into shallow water where a lot of fish may be pooled together, such as during spawning season. If fish are scarce, the birds are known to go to ground as well, hunting on land instead of by sky. Although fish is the Bald Eagle’s preferred meal, it can and will eat other animals and crustaceans such as ducks, jackrabbits, muskrats, turtles, crabs, and shellfish.
These beautiful birds were hunted to near extinction until a 1970s law made it illegal. The loss of their habitat as more humans encroached on the land added to their dwindling numbers, as did the pesticides we used for crops. Thankfully, the protection laws for Bald Eagles as well as the discontinued use of certain chemicals have helped to increase their numbers and continue to do so.
The Bald Eagle’s Life
It is believed Eagles mate for life and both parents help in building their homes and raising their young. The first breeding occurs around the age of five and then the male and female work together to build a huge nest, generally high in a tall tree. A large mound of sticks makes up the frame of the nest and then finer materials line the inside for comfort, warmth, and protection. The couple continue to add on to the nest each year, which makes theirs one of the largest nests of any birds.
The female usually lays two eggs per year and both parents take turns watching over the eggs during incubation, which is about 35 days. After hatching, one parent will stay with the babies while the other will search for meals. The young are fed by the adult tearing the food into small pieces and feeding them directly. After three to six weeks, the babies will be able to peck at food dropped in the nest.
The young test their wings with their first flight around 10 to 12 weeks old. They are known to travel great distances: California birds have been found in Alaska and Florida Eagles are sometimes seen as far as Michigan.