Sub-tropical to sub-polar latitudes of North America
Nest in treetops; feed in freshwater and coastal waters
Order Accipitriformes (raptors and relatives), Family Accipitridae (eagles, hawks, and relatives)
The bald eagle is a large bird of prey that lives along the coastlines of freshwater and marine waterways throughout North America. It is an iconic symbol of the United States and is known for its dark brown or black body but solid white head. The white head is the inspiration for the bald eagle’s common name, but it is not actually bald. Like the rest of the body, the head is covered with feathers.
Bald eagles eat mostly fish, with a variety of coastal and freshwater species included in their diet. Along the Pacific coast of North America, salmon and trout – particularly the pink salmon – form the vast majority of this species’ diet. In other areas, the species takes advantage of the locally common fish species. They are also known to eat other birds, especially seabirds and waterfowl. Though bald eagles have a reputation for being impressive predators, they often scavenge dead animal matter or steal kill from other predators.
Like all water birds, bald eagles nest on land. They reproduce via internal fertilization and lay eggs in very large nests. In fact, their nests are the largest tree nests in the world. They use the same nest year after year, and over time, these nests end up being at least 13 feet (4 m) deep and 8 feet (2.5 m) wide and wight over one metric tonne! Clutch size ranges from one to three, but two is the most common number of eggs that a pair of bald eagles cares for at a time. After hatching, juveniles receive some form of parental care for at least five months.
Bald eagles cannot be legally hunted anywhere throughout their range, and populations are currently thought to be stable or even increasing. It is a species of least concern. This species has not always been in such good shape, though, and during the early to middle 20th century, bald eagle numbers plummeted, a result of intense directed hunting and significant accidental poisoning. Poisoning by the common pesticide DDT was considered one of the primary reasons that numbers in the U.S. decreased from several hundred thousand to less than one thousand. DDT poisoning weakened this eagles’ eggs and reduced hatching rate significantly. By the time the government of the U.S. banned the use of DDT in 1972, the bald eagle was critically endangered (very highly vulnerable to extinction). Fortunately, conservation and management efforts have been successful, the species is expanding rapidly, in both numbers and geographic area, and it is no longer threatened by endangerment or extinction.