Bald Eagles

Bald Eagle

The bald eagle has been the national emblem of the United States since 1782, beating out the wild turkey in the process. Perched high in the cottonwood trees that dot the Columbia River, scanning the river for miles in search of a meal, the bald eagle is one of our most revered winter guests.

Along with waterfowl—and indeed, following them—bald eagles congregate on Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge during the winter months, seeking food from the bountiful river and wetlands on the refuge. Look for them near water, both along the Columbia River and along the refuge's sloughs. There are often multiple eagles visible from the auto tour route from December through February.

A bald eagle's diet is mostly fish, but they will prey on birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates such as crabs and mammals, including rabbits and muskrats. Their diet may not always consist of live catches, though, as they are well-known for feeding on carrion. Bald eagles sometimes gorge, ingesting a large amount of food and digesting it over several days. They can also survive fasting for many days, even weeks.

The most majestic view of the bald eagle is when they are in flight. With a wingspan of almost seven feet—one of the largest in North America—bald eagles are powerful fliers. They can be seen soaring, gliding and flapping over long distances. Well known for their spectacular courtship displays, a male and female fly high into the sky, lock talons and cartwheel downward together, breaking off at the last instant to avoid crashing to earth.

On the ground, bald eagles walk in an awkward, rocking gait. Capable of floating, a bald eagle may use its wings to "row" over water too deep for wading.

Though often solitary, bald eagles congregate at communal roosts and feeding sites in winter. These groups are boisterous, with birds jostling for position and bickering over prey.

The bald eagle was once on the verge of extinction; however, they have made a spectacular recovery. Once abundant in North America, the species became rare in the mid-to-late 1900s. Bald eagles were often killed by trapping, shooting and poisoning, as well as being killed by pesticide-caused reproductive failures. In 1978 the bird was listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Bald eagles began recovering in 1980, due to less human caused deaths and the banning of DDT (the bird's main pesticide threat). By the late 1990s, breeding populations of bald eagles could be found throughout most of North America. In June 2007, the bird's recovery prompted its removal from the Endangered Species List. Continuing threats to bald eagle populations include lead poisoning from ammunition in hunter-shot prey, collisions with motor vehicles and stationary structures and development-related destruction of shoreline nesting, perching, roosting and foraging habitats. Today, there are about 250,000 bald eagles, according to estimates by Partners in Flight.

Identification: The bald eagle is much larger than almost every other bird and is easily identifiable through its heavy body, large head and long, hooked bill. In flight, a bald eagle holds its broad wings flat like a board. Making identification even easier, adult bald eagles have white heads and tails with dark brown bodies and wings. Their legs and bills are bright yellow. However, immature birds are often confused for golden eagles, as they are a mottled brown color with the same large body size. Umatilla NWR does not, however, receive any visits from golden eagles, so if you see a brown eagle you are likely looking at an immature bald eagle. Bald eagles do not receive their white and black color markings until they are four to seven years old, depending on nutrition.


Much of the article was borrowed from Cornell University's All About Birds website.