Chesapeake Bay Field Office
Northeast Region

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Bald Eagle. USFWS photo.
Bald Eagle. USFWS photo.

The bald eagle is easily recognized by its white head, brown body and white tail. The scientific name, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, means "white-headed sea eagle." Immature birds are dark brown, mottled with white. The white head and tail begin to appear at 3-4 years of age and is complete by 4-5 years. Adults measure about 3 feet from head to tail, weigh 10-12 pounds and have a wingspan of 6-7 feet. In flight, the bald eagle has a distinctive, flat-winged profile.

Bald eagles usually nest in mature loblolly pines, tulip poplars and oaks along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and rivers. Eagle nests tower 80-110 feet above the ground. The massive nests are often used year after year, growing to 6-8 feet in width and averaging 4 feet deep.

In late winter, bald eagles usually lay one to three eggs which hatch after 35 days. The young are covered with soft down. Within three months, however the young have grown feathers and are flying. By the fourth month, they are on their own. Bald eagles feed primarily on fish, but also eat ducks, geese, small mammals, rodents, snakes and turtles.

Historical records show that in the early 1900s more than 1,000 pairs of birds nested around the Chesapeake Bay each year. However, just prior to the 1940s, bald eagles began to decline due to the direct killing of birds, loss of habitat and decline of prey. In 1940, the Bald Eagle Protection Act made it illegal to kill, harm, harass or possess bald eagles. Possession of dead eagles, their eggs or feathers also became illegal. They began to recover but another culprit entered the picture.

Just before WWII the use of the pesticide DDT to control mosquitoes was widespread in coastal areas. Bald eagles fed on prey contaminated with the pesticide. By the late 1960s and early 70s, researchers found that DDE, a breakdown product of DDT, caused bald eagles and other birds to produce eggs with very thin shells. Chesapeake Bay area surveys of revealed a drop in eagle nests and eaglets produced. In the 1930s, an average of 1 to 2 eaglets were produced per nest, but by the 1960s that average dropped to 1 for every 5 active nests.

Use of DDT was banned in then United States in 1972, but our Nation's symbol was still in trouble. By that time, there were fewer than 90 breeding pairs of eagles in the Chesapeake area. In 1973, bald eagles were listed as endangered throughout most of the lower 48 states, including the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Since the DDT ban, more young eagles have hatched. Nesting success has steadily increased each year. By 1996, 378 active bald eagle nests in the Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania portions of the Chesapeake Bay watershed produced 517 young!

During the past 25 years of recovery, eagles have made a rebound in part due to the replacement of healthy adult nesting pairs. Bald eagles have responded to the DDT ban and the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act , which includes preventing shootings and protecting habitat through landowner agreements.

The Chesapeake Bay now has one of the highest concentrations of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. In addition to the breeding population, the Bay supports winter migrants from as far north as Canada and summer migrants from Florida.

In order for bald eagles populations to improve, they need suitable nesting trees near open water, isolation from human activity and a stable food supply that includes mostly fish, other birds, mammals and reptiles and amphibians. Through habitat protection, identification of important nesting, roosting and feeding sites, and monitoring potential contaminants, the bald eagle will continue its journey of recovery.

Some migratory birds in the Chesapeake Bay area:

Bald Eagle

Black Rail

Canada Goose

Canvasback

Cerulean Warbler

Field Sparrow

Great Blue Heron

Red Knot

Osprey

USFWS Office of Migratory Bird Management

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Shade-Grown Coffee
What's it all about?

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On August 9, 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. After nearly disappearing from most of the United States decades ago, the bald eagle is now flourishing across the nation and no longer needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

The two main factors that led to the recovery of the bald eagle were the banning of the pesticide DDT and habitat protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act for nesting sites and important feeding and roost sites. This recovery could not have been accomplished without the support and cooperation of many private and public landowners.

Last updated: January 28, 2011