Be Your Own Birder

Bird of the Week: Bald Eagle

What other bird would be highlighted this week except the bald eagle? These are regal, amazing birds and apex raptors (top of the food chain) that are well worth the honor of the national bird of the United States. I feel privileged that I’ve had many opportunities to enjoy these birds of prey, both in captivity and soaring free as they deserve.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle – Photo by Andy Morffew

Name: Bald Eagle
Scientific Name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Scientific Family: Accipitridae (Hawks and Eagles)

Habitat: Adaptable to different habitats and may be found in mountains, plains, forests, swamps and even along coastlines, but the key factor is fish. Broad rivers, deep lakes or healthy oceans are essential for bald eagle habitat, as well as old growth trees for suitable nesting sites. Absent from younger forest regions as well as open deserts.

Range: Year-round in western mountain regions of North America and along the northern Pacific Coast stretching to Alaska. Summer breeding range extends throughout much of Canada but not into the most barren Arctic regions. Winter range extends throughout the continental United States and slightly into northern Mexico.

Bald eagles in mature plumage, with their plain white hoods and tails contrasting with rich brown bodies, accented with strong yellow legs and bills, are unmistakable. When in juvenile plumage – as they will be for 4-5 years until sexual maturity – they are far more confusing, with mottled brown and white plumage and indistinct markings. Males and females look alike, though females can be up to 25 percent larger than males, a size differential that is necessary for developing eggs.

What I’ve always found most distinct about these raptors, and a key field mark that distinguishes them even from a distance, is their huge bill. And I do mean huge – it’s broad, deep and thick, and no other raptor (except other eagle species) even comes close for bill size.

These are regal birds, with upright postures and very calculated, piercing gazes. They perch on poles, in trees or on cliffsides, and may even be taunted by much smaller birds who would rather a predatory raptor not stake a claim nearby. In soaring flight, the broad wings of the eagle are stretched straight, with the flared fingertips of their primary feathers standing out prominently.

Bald eagles are well known even to non-birders, but perhaps not so well known as many people assume. For example, the long, screeching call often associated with eagles from movies? That’s actually the call of a red-tailed hawk – a bald eagle’s call is more of a squeaky chatter or a short squeal similar to a jay. And what about the idea that Benjamin Franklin preferred the wild turkey over the bald eagle as the country’s national symbol? There is no proof of that preference, though Benjamin Franklin did not admire the bald eagle’s habit of yielding before the smaller birds harassing it, nor of stealing the kills of other predators, as these opportunistic feeders will do.

I enjoy bald eagles, and I’ve been honored to enjoy them many times and in many ways. My first sighting, when I added the bald eagle to my life list, was in southern Utah in 2009. I was returning from a regional birding festival when I saw these distinct raptors roosting in a tree alongside the highway – even driving at 75 miles per hour and seeing them from a distance, there was no mistaking the birds. A much better viewing, however, was several years later on a trail walk just a few miles from my home. A pair of bald eagles was roosting in a tree by the river, much to the dismay of a nearby red-tailed hawk. The eagles eventually left the area to the hawk’s delight, but their departure seemed more out of disdain and boredom rather than any real agitation.

One experience I’ve never had the privilege of, but hope to one day, is seeing a bald eagle’s nest. Given that these raptors winter in Florida and happily breed here, that experience is likely closer than I think. You just watch, I’ll find them nesting in the neighborhood one of these days…

What experiences have you had with bald eagles? Share your stories and sightings in the comments.

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