All About the Bald Eagle: America’s Bird of Prey

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 11th November 2023

NameBald EagleDietCarnivorous 
Scientific nameHaliaeetus leucocephalusWeight3 to 6.3 kilograms (6.6 to 13.9 pounds)
Pronunciationbaald ee-glLength0.7 to 1.02 meters (28 to 40 inches)
(For Wingspan: 1.8 to 2.3 meters or 6 to 8 inches)
ClassificationAves, Accipitriformes, & AccipitridaeLocationUnited States, Canada, Mexico (North America)

The Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle
The bald eagle flying over lake Michigan | Karel Bock via Getty Images

The bald eagle is a large bird of prey native to North America. 

The majestic bird is one of the continent’s largest bird species, significantly dwarfing other raptors and birds. 

It is famous as the national bird of the United States and one of its most recognizable national symbols. 

Contrary to what the name might suggest, bald eagles don’t actually have bald heads. 

The name is derived from an old English word “piebald,” which actually meant “white-headed” rather than hairless. 

This references the snowy-white feathers that cover the bird’s heads and tails. 

The bald eagle is a type of sea eagle, so it is commonly found hanging out close to inland rivers and large lakes. 

Despite their national fame, a symbol of strength, courage, and freedom, the bald eagle was almost wiped out in the United States in the mid-20th century. 

This bird has now made a comeback and remains one of the most prominent birds in the country. 

In this article, we’ll explore some of the most fascinating facts about the bald eagle. 

Taxonomy and Classification

Gage Beasley's Bald Eagle Bird Soft Stuffed Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Bald Eagle Bird Soft Stuffed Plush Toy

The scientific name of the bald eagle is Haliaeetus leucocephalus

It is also commonly referred to as the American eagle. 

It belongs to the Haliaeetus genus, along with three other species of eagle, including the white-tailed eagle, Steller’s sea eagle, and Pallas’s fish eagle. 

The bald eagle is a type of sea eagle. 

This means it belongs to the Haliaeetinae sub-family of eagles.

There are ten species of eagles in this subfamily, all found in riverine and coastal habitats worldwide. 

The sea eagles are part of a larger family of birds of prey known as the Accipitridae. 

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle close-up | EmilyNorton via Getty Images

This family includes the different species of eagles, hawks, kites, Old World vultures, and harriers. 

The white-tailed eagle is the closest living relative of the bald eagle. 

In fact, both species look so similar that they’re considered a species pair. 

They’re similarly sized, and their plumage looks very similar.

The major difference between them is their distribution. 

While the white-tailed eagle is primarily found in Eurasia, the bald eagle lives in North America.

There are two subspecies of bald eagles, differentiated by their distribution. 

H. l. leucocephalus is mainly found in the Southern United States, while the second subspecies (H. l. washingtoniensis) lives in the Northern United States and is slightly larger. 

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

Physical Characteristics

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle perching on a branch, Delta, BC, Canada | LeonU via Getty Images

Bald eagles are large, predatory eagles. 

They can be recognized by their evenly dark brown plumage, which covers most of their body and wings. 

This eagle’s head and wedge-shaped tail are notably white, while the hooked beak has a distinct yellow color.

Their feet are yellow as well and equipped with sharp, black talons. 

Males and females have a similar appearance, but the females are typically bigger than males. 

The average wingspan of a bald eagle is between 1.8 and 2.3 meters (5 feet 11 inches and 7 feet 7 inches). 

Bald Eagle
Spread your wings, bald eagle! | BirdImages via Getty Images

They weigh about 3 to 6.3 kilograms (6.6 and 13.9 pounds) on average. 

Females are 25% larger than males, with an average weight of about 5.6 kilograms (12 pounds) compared to 4.1 kilograms (9.0 pounds) for males. 

Their weight varies based on age, sex, and geographic location.

For instance, northern populations of bald eagles are generally larger than the southern species.

In Alaska, which is the northernmost edge of their range, females weigh up to seven kilograms (15 pounds), with a wingspan of about 2.44 meters (8 feet). 

Habitat and Distribution


The bald eagle is native to North America and found throughout the continent. 

They are highly adaptable birds and can be found in a variety of habitats.

Bald eagles are the only sea eagle species endemic to North America.

They’re closely associated with marine water bodies, including coastal shorelines and estuaries. 

These eagles are commonly found near freshwater bodies such as rivers and lakes. 

Bald eagles can be found in wetland areas like marshes and swamps, which provide additional opportunities for foraging on various prey.

They live in open habitats such as grasslands or agricultural fields. 

The bald eagle needs mature stands of conifers and other types of hardwood for perching, roosting, and nesting.

Bald Eagle
A beautiful sunset sky with two bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) perched on a dead tree trunk | Wirestock via Getty Images

This is why they typically prefer habitats near mature forests where they can find suitable nesting sites, often in the tallest trees near the water’s edge.

In the United States, bald eagles are found throughout the lower 48 states, especially in the northern and Pacific Northwest states. 

Alaska is home to one of the world’s largest bald eagle populations that inhabit the state’s rugged coastlines and remote wilderness areas. 

Some of the biggest bald eagles are found here as well. 

Bald eagles can be found in various provinces of Canada, especially along the country’s western and eastern coasts. 

They may also winter in Mexico, especially in the northern and western parts of the country. 

Bald eagles are not native to Central or South America. 

However, a few individuals can be seen occasionally in some parts of these regions during migration.

Behavior and Social Structure

Bald Eagle
Defending the waters | KenCanning via Getty Images

Bald eagles are territorial birds. 

They make nests near bodies of water that they defend aggressively. 

These territories can vary in size but typically cover a vast area with abundant access to food and other resources. 

Usually, a territory occupied by a mating pair can cover an area of up to one to two kilometers (0.62 to 1.24 miles). 

The bald eagle is sensitive to human activities and typically makes nests in remote areas with minimal human disturbance. 

Bald eagles are only partially migratory. 

They’ll remain in regions with sufficient food resources and suitable temperatures all year round. 

But in regions where winters are harsh and water bodies freeze, bald eagles have been known to migrate southwards in search of more favorable habitats. 

They’re less territorial when they migrate outside their typical range. 

American eagles are primarily solitary. 

However, they sometimes congregate in large numbers in areas with plentiful prey. 

Scientists think these congregations help them exchange information about the location and availability of prey.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle pair perched in nest in central Montana in western USA of North America. | John Morrison via Getty Images

Bald eagles also form long-lasting pairs during the breeding season. 

Such pairs typically consist of mated male and female individuals. 

The pairs work together to build and maintain their nests. 

They also share the responsibility of defending their territory and raising their young.

Bald eagles are diurnal, which means they’re more active during the day than at night. 

They often hunt for prey in the morning and late afternoon while perching on trees to rest in between. 

While resting, bald eagles may spend significant time preening and maintaining their feathers to keep them in optimal condition.

Despite their large size, bald eagles have a weak and wimpy voice. 

They give a squeaky call when they’re near the nest. 

They have a similar call while in flight as well. 

A loud “screaming” vocalization has been erroneously attributed to the bald eagle, but this sound is actually the call of a red-tailed hawk. 

Diet and Feeding

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle eating on a rock in the Gardiner River in Yellowstone National Park, southern Montana, USA. | John Morrison via Getty Images

Bald eagles are opportunistic carnivores.  

Fish form the bulk of the eagle’s diet but may also prey on other animals, including small mammals, lizards, snakes, and even smaller birds. 

Bald eagles are skilled hunters. 

They use a “sit-and-wait” hunting strategy, which involves perching in trees near the water’s edge from where they can spot fish swimming near the surface. 

Bald eagles then swoop down to catch their prey with their sharp talons. 

They have been known to attack bird prey in mid-flight and take on prey as large as the Canada geese.

American eagles can fly with prey almost equal to their body weight. 

They feed on the ground or trees by holding prey in one claw while tearing flesh with the sharp talons of the other hand or with their curved beak. 

Bald eagles are known scavengers. 

Bald Eagle
Bald eagle tearing flesh of fish it just caught sitting on tree branch | John Morrison via Getty Images

They can feed on the dead flesh of fish, mammals, birds, and other animals. 

These eagles also have the undignified habit of stealing food from other predators instead of expending their energy on a hunt. 

They target ospreys specifically and rob them of their catch. 

They may also steal food from campsites, picnics, and garbage dumps. 

Bald eagles have a pouch in their throat known as a crop. 

During periods of food abundance, they can store food up to one kilogram (2.2 pounds) in this throat pouch. 

This act, known as gorging, allows the eagle to fast for several days during food scarcity. 

Although they’re solitary hunters, bald eagles may sometimes hunt large prey like jackrabbits cooperatively. 

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Bald Eagle
Adult and chick bald eagle | Murray Foubister via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bald eagles form monogamous pairs that often last for life. 

However, an individual may choose a new mate if one pair member dies, disappears for any reason, or they’re unable to mate successfully. 

Mating typically occurs during the winter months or early spring (usually in mid-February). 

Before mating, pairs engage in extensive play involving mid-air cartwheels and other aerial displays. 

The pair fly high into the sky and lock talons. 

Then, they do a cartwheel-like spin as they fall downward, breaking off the lock just before hitting the ground. 

These displays help strengthen the pair’s bond. 

They also work together to select suitable nesting sites and build their nests. 

Bald eagles return to the area where they were born to mate and nest. 

They make large nests from sticks and other materials in isolated trees or rock pinnacles within easy reach of the water.

Bald Eagle
Eagle sitting on nest with chicks in Smith Rock State Park in Oregon | Bobbushphoto via Getty Images

The bald eagle’s nest is the largest of all North American birds. 

They use the nest repeatedly, adding new materials each year. 

After several years, the nest may be as large as four meters (13 feet) deep and 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) across. 

The current largest bald eagle nest on record was discovered in Florida. 

It had a diameter of about 2.9 meters and was up to 6.1 meters deep. 

Bald eagles lay about one to three eggs per year on average, but in captivity, they have been known to produce up to seven eggs. 

Even when all their eggs hatch, it is rare for all three chicks to make it into adulthood. 

The young eaglets grow very quickly. 

With an average growth rate of about 170 grams per day, they have the fastest growth rate of any bird in North America. 

Juvenile Bald Eagle flying | LeonU via Getty Images

They’re strong enough to flap their wings by the time they’re eight weeks and will typically take flight for the first time, anytime between the first eight and fourteen weeks of their life. 

Parents will continue to care for their young until they’re about 16 to 20 weeks old, when the immature eagles finally leave the nest. 

Juveniles wander around for about four years until they’re mature enough to form a mated pair and reproduce. 

Immature birds look different from adults. 

Their head and tails are primarily dark, while their brown wings are mottled. 

Young bald eagles start looking like adults when they’re about five.

Bald eagles live for an average of 20 years in the wild, with the oldest confirmed individual living for about 38 years. 

In captivity, their average lifespan is longer. 

The oldest surviving individual in captivity lived for close to 50 years.

Ecological Role and Interactions

Swooping in for the kill! | KenCanning via Getty Images

As a top predator, the bald eagle helps regulate the populations of various prey species. 

This includes fish, waterfowl, and small mammals. 

Their feeding activities control the population and distribution of these species, which is crucial for maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

Bald eagles also take on the dirty work of scavenging and habitat cleanup. 

They eat carrion, including dead fish, whales, birds, and other animals. 

This scavenging behavior contributes to the recycling of nutrients within the ecosystem and also prevents the spread of diseases.

Bald eagles compete actively with and steal prey from other predatory birds, especially ospreys and golden eagles. 

Conservation Status and Threats

Bald Eagle flying over mountains | KenCanning via Getty Images

The bald eagle is a conservation success story. 

The species was on the brink of extinction in the latter half of the 20th century. 

The American eagle population, which was close to 500,000 in the 18th century, was down to only about 412 nesting pairs in the 1950s. 

This was due to overhunting, pollution, and the destruction of their habitats by human development activities. 

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), a pesticide that became popular after the Second World War, was one of the major threats to this species. 

This chemical contaminated their habitats and the fish they ate. 

This weakened their eggshells, causing them to crack during incubation. 

 In 1972, the government of the United States introduced some laws and population management strategies to protect the country’s national bird. 

DDT was banned in America and other parts of North America, and the bird enjoyed a protected status as an endangered species. 

Today, the bald eagle is listed as a species of “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List, meaning it is no longer at a significant risk of extinction.

Populations have soared in recent years, but the bird still faces threats such as illegal hunting, electrocution, habitat loss, and lead poisoning. 

Climate change also affects the availability of the bird’s typical prey due to changes in water levels and weather patterns, indirectly impacting bald eagles.  

The American eagle is still protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. 

This law makes it illegal to harm, harass, or possess these birds without special permits.

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

Fancy showing us some aerial manuevers, bald eagle? | 6381380 via Getty Images

Bald eagles are skilled fliers capable of intricate aerial maneuvers. 

This bird can reach speeds of up to 56–70 kilometers per hour (35–43 miles per hour) while gliding and has a diving speed of up to 120–160 kilometers per hour (75–99 miles per hour). 

This agility allows them to capture fast-moving prey with great precision.

They also have exceptionally sharp eyesight, allowing them to spot prey from high up in the sky. 

Bald eagles can swoop in quickly to pick up prey with their sharp talons.

The beak and talons are strong, which makes them effective for tearing flesh from prey. 

Bald eagles can swim, and they have specialized waterproof feathers. 

These adaptations are particularly important since the eagle spends a lot of time near water bodies. 

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

Bald Eagle with the flag of the United States of America | FrozenShutter via Getty Images

The bald eagle is the national bird and symbol of the United States.

The bald eagle appears on the Great Seal of the United States, the presidential seal, and several other national emblems.

It was selected as the country’s national bird in 1782 and has been an emblem of freedom and strength. 

Interestingly, the bald eagle was not always the top choice for this honor. 

In fact, some of the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, were against the idea of picking the bald eagle as the national symbol. 

A bald eagle waiting for its opportunity to strike | Eduardo Baena via Getty Images

This was because of the eagle’s “not-so-stellar” reputation as a scavenging opportunistic bird that thrives by stealing from other birds. 

But even before the bald eagle attained national recognition, it was quite well-known to native Americans. 

Many Native American tribes have stories, legends, and rituals about the eagle. 

The bird is seen as a symbol of spiritual strength, vision, and connection to the divine.

Eagle feathers are used in several traditional ceremonies and are believed to possess protective powers. 

Today, the American eagle is commonly represented in movies, documentaries, and other pop culture materials. 

Future Prospects and Research

Bald eagle flying in the sky, resting on top of a branch | davemantel via Getty Images

Efforts to protect bald eagles and aid the recovery of their population have so far been quite successful. 

However, scientists are still monitoring bald eagle populations in order to track their recovery and assess potential threats. 

This research often involves using advanced technology such as GPS tracking and satellite telemetry to gain insights into the movement patterns, behavior, and habitat use of this species.

Toxicology and environmental impacts relating to bald eagles are also ongoing.

The aim is to study the effects of environmental contaminants such as heavy metals, chemicals, and plastics on bald issues and determine how they affect their health and population dynamics. 

These studies will have significant implications for conservation efforts not just for bald eagles but also for other species of raptorial birds in North America and other parts of the world.

Conclusion

The bald eagle is a large, powerful bird native to North America. 

It is mainly found in the United States of America, but populations are also relatively stable in Canada and Mexico. 

The bald eagle is the national bird and symbol of the United States of America. 

This majestic bird is a proficient flier and efficient hunter that routinely picks fish and other aquatic prey out of the water. 

It also preys on terrestrial prey, including birds and mammals. 

The American eagle is also a scavenger, and it commonly harasses other bird species to steal their prey. 

Nearly on the brink of extinction in the 1950s, the bald eagle has made a comeback, thanks to the efforts of governments and conservationists. 

Their recovery is also a testament to their resilient nature and justifies the bird’s identity as a symbol of strength and immortality. 

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