Eagle Habits and Facts


An adult bald eagle soars majestically above the Missouri River breaks, its white head and tail sparkling in the crisp December sun. 

The eagle peers downward, searching for prey. Suddenly, it folds its wings and swoops downward in a mind-blurring, 100 mile-per-hour dive.  Checking his descent, the eagle skims above the Missouri’s ice-blue waters and deftly thrusts a talon into the waters.  He pulls up and wings toward a tall cottonwood tree carrying his breakfast, a silvery shad.  The eagle flares his wings and lands upon a gnarled limb.  A scream of defiance warns potential intruders that his woodland is the realm of a bird of strength and courage – the symbol of our Nation.


Small numbers of eagles begin to move onto the refuge during late October, with peak populations occurring during December and January.  Immature eagles outnumber the white head adults during November; however, the December-January flock contains 70-80 percent adults.

During their winter stay, most eagles perch within 50 feet of the river bank, preferring tall cottonwood trees in close proximity to the source of food.  There appear to be five major communal roosts located within the Fort Randall-Karl Mundt wintering area.  Communal roosting promotes efficient exploitation of the food resources in the wintering area and allows a maximum number of eagles to roost at sites protected from the chilling winter winds.

The eagles feed mainly on fish in the Fort Randall Dam tail waters during the morning hours.  Mallards, rabbits and pheasants are also eaten as the fish supply declines.  During late January and early February, many of the eagles begin to follow the waterfowl flocks which feed in private cornfields. The refuge eagle population quickly declines as the feeding eagles shift to several roosts throughout Charles Mix County.  This eagle dispersal continues and, by mid-March, bald eagles become a rare sight on the refuge.


 Eagle Facts

• The bald eagle was officially listed as an endangered species in 1978.
• The male eagle is smaller than the female. The adult female has a wingspan of about 8 feet and weighs 10-14 pounds. The male has a wingspan of about 7 feet and weighs 8-10 pounds.
• The birds’ scientific name, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, means “white-headed sea eagle."
• Eagles may live 30 years or more in the wild.
• Eagles have been clocked at speeds of over 100 miles-per-hour while diving on their prey.
• Eagles mate for life, returning to the same nest year after year.
• One to three eggs are laid, hatching in about 35 days. Normally, only one chick survives.
• Young learn to fly at three months of age and leave the nest when they reach their fourth month.
• The white head and tail feathers develop during the fourth or fifth year. Young birds may be mistaken for large hawks.