Chesapeake Bay Field Office
Northeast Region


bald eagle

Bald Eagle: Soaring to Recovery

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 are 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.

In 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to remove the bald eagle from the endangered and threatened list due to its rebound. The Service has reopened the public comment period in order to solicit current information about bald eagle populations and trends.

The eagle was removed from the T&E list in June 2007. It will continue to be protected by the Bald Eagle Protection Act and Migratory Bird Act. The Service has also developed draft voluntary guidelines to help landowners avoid impacts to eagles. Continue…


Learn more:

Bald Eagle page on the US Fish & Wildlife Service's Endangered Species site.

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 several thousand 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 one to two eaglets were produced per nest, but by the 1960s that average dropped to one for every five active nests.

Use of DDT was banned in the 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.

Through habitat protection, identification of important nesting, roosting and feeding sites, and monitoring potential contaminants, the current level of nesting bald eagles in the Chesapeake Bay can be sustained.


Last updated: January 6, 2011