BIRD OF THE WEEK: 7/4/2014
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
HABITAT: Lakes, reservoirs, rivers, marshes, and coasts in North America
The majestic Bald Eagle is the only eagle unique to North America—the Golden Eagle occurs across the entire Northern Hemisphere. The species is well-known, even to non-birders, as the national symbol of the United States.
The Bald Eagle's Latin name accurately reflects its appearance and habits: hali and aiētos mean "sea eagle," and leuco and cephalos mean "white head." Its distinctive white head and tail make it easy to identify, even from a distance. Immature Bald Eagles don't develop the characteristic white head and tail until they are between four and five years old.
Bald Eagles make a very un-regal, high-pitched squeaking sound. (Hear it in the sound file above!) In TV shows and movies, the loud, low scream of the Red-tailed Hawk is often dubbed over the image of an eagle on-screen.
The species is a conservation success story. In the late 1900s, Bald Eagles had become increasingly rare—victims of trapping, shooting, and poisoning, plus nesting failure caused by DDT and other pesticides.
By 1978, the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act. Populations rebounded after the more toxic pesticides were banned, and the species' recovery was declared a success. The Bald Eagle was removed from the Endangered Species list in 2007.
Bald Eagles have become an increasingly common sight across their range. But they continue to face threats from increasing numbers of wind turbines. Several wind energy projects are listed in our "10 Worst-sited" report because of their impacts on eagles.
In addition, lead poisoning and destruction of coastal habitat continue as threats to the birds. A strange case in 2016, centering on dead eagles found in the mid-Atlantic region, is thought to have resulted from human-caused poisoning.
ABC filed suit against the Department of the Interior in connection with a rule that would allow wind energy companies and others to obtain 30-year permits to kill eagles without prosecution by the federal government. We declared victory in 2015 when a judge agreed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to follow the law in issuing this rule.
A distinctive courtship and territorial behavior of the Bald Eagle is the "talon clasping" or "cartwheel display," where two eagles grab each other's talons high in the air and fall downward, spinning. The birds release one another only when they have almost hit the ground. Bald Eagles remain together in an monagamous relationship until one or the other of the pair dies.
Bald Eagle pairs—like other eagles such as the Ornate Hawk-Eagle—work together to build a platform nest of sticks high in a large tree. The nest is added to each year, sometimes reaching such an enormous size that it takes down the tree itself!
Nest cams like this one found in the U.S. National Arboretum give a sense of the size of the eagle's nest-building prowess.