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Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus


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Bald Eagle
credit: Eric Frommer/CCSA

© Lang Elliot/ (audio)

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Family: Accipitridae, Hawks and Eagles view all from this family

Description ADULT Has a white head, neck, and tail, contrasting with dark brown upperparts and belly. Powerful bill and feet are yellow. JUVENILE Mainly uniformly dark brown although underparts, including underwings and undertail, are rather irregularly marked with white; bill and cere are dark (latter feature is yellowish in juvenile Golden Eagle) while legs and feet are yellow. SUBADULT Gradually acquires adult plumage through successive molts over several years.

Dimensions Length: 30-31" (76-79 cm ); Wngspn: 6-7' 6" (1.8-2.3 m)

Endangered Status The Bald Eagle, until recently on the U.S. Endangered Species List, is a high-profile wildlife conservation success story. It was classified as "Threatened" in all of the continental United States except Alaska until June 28, 2007, when this large eagle was officially removed from the Endangered Species List. Our national bird suffered a dramatic decline caused by ingestion of pesticides and of lead-contaminated waterfowl. The main culprit was DDT, which was sprayed on crops to control pest damage. It leached into rivers, lakes, and streams, where it entered the food chain, absorbed by plants and small animals that were consumed by fish. Eagles and other large birds of prey in turn ate the contaminated fish. The main effect of DDT poisoning on birds was that it interfered with eggshell production, and the resulting shells were not strong enough to sustain incubation. Populations of many bird species, including the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and Brown Pelican, plummeted. DDT use was outlawed in the U.S. in 1972, and conservation efforts on behalf of the Bald Eagle, begun in 1940 when Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, finally began to have an effect. The majestic eagle is now making a steady comeback, and once again nests in areas where it was wiped out during the 1960s. However, it is still not as numerous as it was in colonial times, when it was a familiar sight along almost every coastline.

Habitat Usually seen near water, except occasionally on migration; occurs both on coasts and beside fish-rich rivers and freshwater lakes. Once widespread but suffered badly in the past from pesticide accumulation and habitat destruction in many parts. Numbers are now recovering and before long it may no longer be classed as threatened. Mainly a summer visitor to north of its range although often occurs year-round in coastal districts; northwest is a particular stronghold. Most northern breeders migrate south in fall and are widespread but generally scarce in winter across U.S., some joining resident populations.

Observation Tips Bald Eagles are easiest to observe in the Pacific Northwest but are nevertheless fairly widespread, if not common, in range covered by this book; Florida harbors good numbers.

Range California, Texas, Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Florida, Eastern Canada, Western Canada, New England, Northwest, Southeast, Plains, Southwest, Alaska, Rocky Mountains

Voice A variety of hoarse and rather plaintive whistling calls.

Discussion A huge, iconic bird of prey and the national symbol of the U.S. Adult is unmistakable. Immature birds, which lack adult's white head and tail, could possibly be confused with a Golden Eagle. However, note Bald Eagle's distinctive flight silhouette with much broader wings and proportionately shorter tail than its cousin; thicker neck and larger head and bill are also useful pointers. Fish are important in the diet and are snatched from water with surprising agility for a bird of this size. Carrion is eaten, mainly in winter when fish are less active at water's surface and sometimes protected from predation by ice.