American Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

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FLIGHT AND HUNTING: This large raptor (bird of prey) can be found throughout North America, including Alaska. With its distinctive white head and tail, it can be seen soaring high on wind currents, searching for prey. The eagle can soar for long periods of time without flapping its wings. With its brownish-black body, bright yellow eyes and feet, and a wing span of 6 to 7 1/2 feet, it is our largest raptor. Eagles can weigh up to 15 1/2 pounds. They eat many different things. Although they prefer fish, water birds, and small mammals, they have been known to eat everything from dead animals to garbage. Their strong talons (claws) make them excellent hunters, but they would rather scavenge or steal their food. Eagles will fly at ospreys (fish hawks) to make them drop their captured fish. The eagle then catches the stolen fish and flies away to eat it. In 1782 Ben Franklin pointed out that eagles are thieves, and said the turkey should be our national bird instead.

To see an Eagle catch dinner, click on the fish!

NESTING AND BABIES: Eagle parents stay together their whole lives. Both parents work hard to care for their babies. They usually build their nests in a large pine tree and will use the same nest year after year. (One eagle’s nest in Florida was 9 1/2 wide feet and 20 feet tall!) Eagles sometimes decorate their nests with strange things like green leaves, light bulbs, clothes pins, golf balls, and Clorox bottles. The green leaves may be a sign to other birds that the nest is being used. The mother lays 1 to 3 dull white eggs that are a little bigger than an "extra-large" chicken egg. She often waits a few days before laying the second and third eggs. Both the mother and father take turns sitting on the eggs for 35 days. It can take a baby eagle 2 or 3 days to peck all the way out of its shell. If there is more than one eaglet in the nest, the babies may have to fight each other to get enough food. Often the smallest eaglet will die. If all of the babies survive the first few weeks, they will become playmates. They play games of tug-of-war, you chase me-I chase you, and broad jump from one side of the nest to the other. Their toys are feathers, sticks, left over pieces of lunch, and even their smaller brother or sister. The parents are very protective of their new babies. They will attack scientists trying to get a look into the nest and even helicopters flying overhead. Baby eagles grow very fast; they start learning to fly when they are only 2 months old! This can be a very dangerous time for an eaglet, and many will end up on the ground. The parents will usually feed a grounded eaglet, but if the youngster is not able to fly soon, it may get eaten by a predator. If everything goes right, the eaglets are ready to leave the nest and hunt alone when they are 4-6 months old. These young eagles are all brownish black. Their white head and tail feathers don’t show up until they are 3 to 5 years old (adults).

HISTORY AND FUTURE: DDT was a chemical used to kill bugs. It ran off the land into the water and got into the fish. When eagles ate these fish, the DDT made their egg shells very thin. So when the parent sat on the eggs, the babies got crushed. It has been against the law to use DDT since the 1970’s, and eagles have made a strong comeback. They are no longer an endangered species. But they are still THREATENED, and are protected by the government. The eagles’ biggest problem right now is loss of habitat (places to hunt and build nests). Their habitat is disappearing because people cut down trees and cover up ponds to build houses. By cleaning up polluted rivers, protecting nesting areas, and making it illegal to hunt eagles or have their feathers, people have really helped the eagle to survive.


Stalmaster, Mark V. The Bald Eagle. New York: University Books, 1987.

Terres, John K. The Audubon Soc. Encyclopedia of N. Am. Birds. New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc., 1987.

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