Bald Eagle
FWS Focus

Overview

A large raptor, the bald eagle has a wingspread of about seven feet. Adults have a dark brown body and wings, white head and tail, and a yellow beak. Juveniles are mostly brown with white mottling on the body, tail, and undersides of wings. Adult plumage usually is obtained by the sixth year. In flight, the Bald Eagle often soars or glides with the wings held at a right angle to the body. As in most other raptors, females are larger than males; sexes otherwise similar in appearance.

References for Species Profile

  • Anthony, R. G., R. L. Knight, G. T. Allen, B. R. McClelland, and J. L. Hodges. 1982.Habitat use by nesting and roosting Bald Eagles in the Pacific Northwest. Trans. N.A. Wildl. Nat. Resour. Conf. 47:332-342.
  • Broley, C. L. 1947. Migration and nesting of Florida Bald Eagles. Wilson Bull. 59:1-68.
  • Buehler, D. A., T. J. Mersmann, J. D. Fraser, and J. K. D. Seegar. 1991. Nonbreeding Bald Eagle communal and solitary roosting behavior and habitat use on the northern Chesapeake Bay. J. Wildl. Manage. 55:273-281.
  • Buehler, David A. 2000. Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/506
  • Chester, D. N., D. F. Stauffer, T. J. Smith, D. R. Luukkonen, and J. D. Fraser. 1990.Habitat use by nonbreeding Bald Eagles in North Carolina. J. Wildl. Manage. 54:223-234.
  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 2015. Bald Eagle. All About Birds. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bald_Eagle/id

Scientific Name

Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Common Name
Bald Eagle
FWS Category
Birds
Kingdom

Location in Taxonomic Tree

Identification Numbers

TSN:

Characteristics

Characteristic category

Overview

Characteristics

Overview

The bald eagle is an Endangered Species Act success story.

In the mid-1900's, our national symbol was in danger of extinction throughout most of its range. Habitat destruction and degradation, illegal shooting, and the contamination of its food source, largely as a consequence of DDT, decimated the eagle population.

Habitat protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act, the federal government’s banning of DDT, and conservation actions taken by the American public have helped bald eagles make a remarkable recovery.  Bald eagle sightings are now often common during both the nesting season and over winter.

While bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in August 2007 because their populations recovered sufficiently, bald eagles are still protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

When America adopted the bald eagle as the national symbol in 1782, anecdotal accounts stated the country may have had as many as 100,000 nesting eagles. The first major decline of the species probably began in the mid to late 1800’s, coinciding with the decline of waterfowl, shorebirds, and other prey.

Although they primarily eat fish and carrion, bald eagles used to be considered marauders that preyed on chickens, lambs, and domestic livestock. Consequently, the large raptors were shot in an effort to eliminate a perceived threat. Coupled with the loss of nesting habitat, bald eagle populations declined.

In 1940, noting that the species was “threatened with extinction,” Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which prohibited killing, selling, or possessing the species. A 1962 amendment added the golden eagle, and the law became the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Shortly after World War II, DDT was hailed as a new pesticide to control mosquitoes and other insects. However, DDT and its residues washed into nearby waterways, where aquatic plants and fish absorbed it. Bald eagles, in turn, were poisoned with DDT when they ate the contaminated fish. The chemical interfered with the ability of the birds to produce strong eggshells.

As a result, their eggs had shells so thin that they often broke during incubation or otherwise failed to hatch. DDT also affected other species such as peregrine falcons and brown pelicans. Some other pesticides related to DDT are suspected to have caused increased mortality, in addition to the harmful effects on reproduction. By 1963, with only 417 nesting pairs of bald eagles known to exist, the species was in danger of extinction.

As the dangers of DDT became known, in large part due to the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, the Environmental Protection Agency took the historic and, at the time, controversial step of banning the use of DDT and some related pesticides in the United States. That was in 1972, and it was the first step on the road to recovery for the bald eagle.

In 1967, the Secretary of Interior listed bald eagles south of the 40th parallel under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. Following enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Service listed the species in 1978 as endangered throughout the lower 48 states, except in Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin where it was designated as threatened.

The species was not listed as threatened or endangered in Hawaii because it does not occur there, or in Alaska because populations there have remained robust.

Listing the species as endangered provided the springboard for the Service and its partners to accelerate the pace of recovery through captive breeding programs, reintroduction efforts, law enforcement, and nest site protection during the breeding season.

In July 1995, the Service announced that bald eagles in the lower 48 states had recovered to the point where those populations previously considered endangered could be reclassified to the less critical category of threatened.

Then in 2007, the Service estimated there were at least 9,789 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous United States. Bald eagles staged a remarkable population rebound and recovered to the point that they no longer needed the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Thus, on June 28, 2007, the Service announced the recovery of our nation’s symbol and removal from the list of threatened and endangered species.

In 2016, the Service published the bald eagle population status report as part of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. In that report which analyzed data from 2009, the bald eagle population in the lower 48 status was estimated to be 72,434 individuals, including 30,548 breeding pairs.

Then in 2021, the Service published a technical update that provided the newest estimates for the bald eagle population in the lower 48 states for the period 2018-2019, totaling 316,700 individuals, which included 71,467 breeding pairs.

The recovery of the bald eagle is one of the most well-known conservation success stories of all time. The Service continues to work with our partners in state and federal agencies, tribes, nongovernment organizations and private landowners to ensure that our nation’s symbol flourishes.

Although the Service removed the bald eagle from the list of threatened and endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, the bird continues to be protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Both laws prohibit killing, selling or otherwise harming eagles, their nests, or eggs.

 The Service developed guidelines to help landowners avoid disturbing eagles and encourage beneficial conservation practices.

Characteristic category

Habitat

Characteristics

Habitat

Bald eagles live near rivers, lakes, and marshes.  Bald eagles are expanding their range as their population continues to increase, also moving into urban areas.

Bald eagles require a good food base, perching areas, and nesting sites. Their habitat includes estuaries, large lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and some seacoasts.  They’re also occasionally found in arid areas farther from water sources.

In winter, the birds congregate near open water in tall trees for spotting prey and night roosts for sheltering.

Lake
Urban
Rural
River or Stream
Coastal
Mountain
Forest

Land covered by evergreen trees in cool, northern latitudes. Also called taiga.

Wetland
Characteristic category

Lifecycle

Characteristics

Reproduction

Most bald eagles are capable of breeding at four or five years of age, but in dense populations they may not start breeding until much older. Bald eagles mate for life, but if an individual in the pair dies, the survivor will accept a new mate.

Eagle pairs usually choose the tops of large trees to build nests, however bald eagle nests have also been found on cliffs, the ground, and even on human-made structures like power poles and communication towers.  When nesting in trees, they generally select the tallest trees with limbs strong enough to support their large, heavy nests.  Nests are generally 4-5 feet wide and 2-4 feet deep, but may reach 10 feet across and can weigh thousands of pounds. The largest recorded bald eagle nest, located in St. Petersburg, Florida, was 9.5 feet in diameter, 20 feet deep and weighed almost 6,000 pounds!  Eagle nests are constructed with large sticks, and may be lined with moss, grass, plant stalks, lichens, seaweed, or sod. Pairs will often use and enlarge the same nest each year, but bald eagles may also have one or more alternate nests within their breeding territory.  Nest sites typically include at least one perch with a clear view of a water body for foraging, but bald eagles nests are increasingly being found away from large water bodies.

The eagles may travel great distances during various phases of their lives and non-breeding seasons, but usually return to nest and breed within 100 miles of the place where they were raised. Throughout much of their range, bald eagles usually breed in early spring with breeding lasting into the summer.  However, in hot climates, like Louisiana and Florida, bald eagles nest during the winter.  It is also more common in southern areas for bald eagles to attempt to re-nest if their first nest fails before hatching chicks.

Breeding bald eagles typically lay one to three eggs once a year, and the eggs hatch after about 35 days. The young eagles, often called eaglets, are flying within three months, but they will continue to use their nest as a "home base" where their parents continue to care for them for an additional 4-6 weeks. After about six weeks, the young eagles disperse out into the world on their own.  Eaglets can have high rates of death due to disease, lack of food, bad weather, or dangers associated with humans (collision with cars or power lines).  Recent studies show that approximately 70 percent of eaglets survive their first year of life.

Lifespan

Bald eagles can live up to about 30 years in the wild, and even longer in captivity.

Lifecycle

Bald eagles in northern latitudes generally migrate south in the winter, then return to northerly breeding grounds in late winter/early spring.  Some migration patterns in the western U.S. are tied to salmon runs and salmon population fluctuations.  Bald eagles tend to migrate midday when thermals are strongest. Adult eagles tend to take more direct migration routes than juveniles.

Buehler, D. A. (2020). Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.baleag.01

Characteristic category

Food

Characteristics

Food

Bald eagles are opportunistic feeders with fish being a staple food.  Bald eagles will also feed on waterfowl, shorebirds, waterbirds, turtles, rabbits, snakes, small animals and carrion.  Because they are visual hunters, eagles typically locate their prey from a conspicuous perch, or soaring flight, then swoop down and strike.  They are also known to scavenge on dead fish and animals. Bald eagles are also notorious food thieves, stealing the prey other eagles, mammals, and birds have caught.

Characteristic category

Physical Characteristics

Characteristics

Size & Shape

Bald eagles are large, powerful birds. Females may have a wingspan of up to eight feet. Male eagles are smaller than females and may have a wingspan of up to six feet.

Buehler, D. A. (2020). Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.baleag.01

Color & Pattern

The well-known white head and white tail of bald eagles, with a brown body, is the plumage of a mature adult.  Bald eagles generally attain adult plumage by five years of age. Until bald eagles reach four to five years of age, they have mottled brown and white feathers all over their bodies, slowly developing their distinctive white head and tail as they age over those first five years.  Bald eagles also slowly develop their light eyes and bright yellow bills; juvenile eagles initially have dark eyes and bills, that lighten as they reach adulthood. Bald eagles have yellow legs and only the tops of their legs have feathers.

Buehler, D. A. (2020). Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.baleag.01

Weight

Females may weigh as much as 14 pounds.  Males may weigh as much as 10 pounds.  Bald eagles in the northern part of their range grow larger than those in the southern parts of their range.  Bald eagles in Alaska have been known to reach 16 pounds.

Buehler, D. A. (2020). Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.baleag.01

Sound

The call of a bald eagle may not be what one might expect from such a large raptor.  Bald eagle calls have been described as “weak in volume” and like a “snickering laugh”.  The calls consist of seven or eight notes described as “ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ker”.

Buehler, D. A. (2020). Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.baleag.01

Characteristic category

Geography

Characteristics

Range

The Bald Eagle is truly an all-American bird; it is the only eagle unique to North America.  Its historic range was from Alaska and Canada, across the contiguous United States and down to northern Mexico.

Buehler, D. A. (2020). Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.baleag.01

Import/Export

The import and/or export of bald eagles, or their parts, nests, or eggs is prohibited by law.

16 United States Code 668-668d

Characteristic category

Similar Species

Characteristics

Similar Species

If plumage is not clearly seen, bald eagles can be confused with golden eagles.  Young bald eagles less than five years old do not yet have a fully white head and white tail, but are variably molted brown and white, so are also easily confused with golden eagles.  Eagles can also be confused with turkey vultures or black vultures, and if size is misjudged, they can also be confused with larger hawk species such as red-tailed hawks.

Characteristic category

Behavior

Characteristics

Behavior

Bald eagles can be seen soaring high above, flying around water bodies, perched in trees or on towers, and standing on rocks or the ground.  They are visual predators and hunt both while flying and from perches.  They can even be seen in the water, diving for their fish and waterfowl prey or “swimming” with their catch with a rowing motion of their wings if they’re too wet to fly directly off the water!

Although bald eagles maintain breeding territories, it is common to see them roosting with other bald eagles when they are not breeding.  These communal roosts generate a lot of interaction among the eagles and are a good place to hear them vocalizing.

Bald eagles have even exhibited behaviors which look like play, passing sticks in the air to each other and picking up and manipulating plastic bottles.

Buehler, D. A. (2020). Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.baleag.01

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