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Bald Eagle

Scientific name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus

The bald eagle has been the national emblem of the United States since 1782 and a spiritual symbol for native people for far longer than that. These regal birds aren’t really bald, but their white-feathered heads gleam in contrast to their chocolate-brown body and wings. Look for them soaring in solitude, chasing other birds for their food, or gathering by the hundreds in winter. Once endangered by hunting and pesticides, bald eagles have flourished under protection.

The bald eagle dwarfs most other raptors, including the turkey vulture and red-tailed hawk. It has a heavy body, large head, and long, hooked bill. In flight, a bald eagle holds its broad wings flat like a board.

Photo: Keith Williams


105.8-222.2 ounces (that's almost 14 pounds)


27.9-37.8 inches

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Fish of many kinds constitute the centerpiece of the bald eagle diet (common examples include salmon, herring, shad, and catfish), but these birds eat a wide variety of foods depending on what’s available. They eat birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates such as crabs, and mammals including rabbits and muskrats. They take their prey live, fresh, or as carrion. Bald eagles sometimes gorge, ingesting a large amount of food and digesting it over several days. They can also survive fasting for many days, even weeks.


Bald eagles typically nest in forested areas adjacent to large bodies of water, staying away from heavily developed areas when possible. They tend to use tall, sturdy conifers that protrude above the forest canopy, providing easy flight access and good visibility. Bald eagles are tolerant of human activity when feeding, and may congregate around fish processing plants, dumps, and below dams where fish concentrate. In winter, bald eagles can also be seen in dry, open uplands if there is access to open water for fishing.

Ecosystem Connections

The bald eagle’s recovery is a spectacular conservation success story, and numbers have increased between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Once abundant in North America, the species became rare in the mid-to-late 1900s—the victim of trapping, shooting, and poisoning as well as pesticide-caused reproductive failures. In 1978 the bird was listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Since 1980, gentler treatment by humans along with the banning of DDT (the bird’s main pesticide threat) have led to a dramatic resurgence. Continuing threats to bald eagle populations include lead poisoning from ammunition in hunter-shot prey, collisions with motor vehicles and stationary structures, and development-related destruction of shoreline nesting, perching, roosting and foraging habitats. They are still vulnerable to environmental pollution.

Fun Facts

Rather than do their own fishing, bald eagles often go after other creatures’ catches. A bald eagle will harass a hunting osprey until the smaller raptor drops its prey in midair, where the eagle swoops it up. A bald eagle may even snatch a fish directly out of an osprey’s talons. Fishing mammals (even people sometimes) can also lose prey to bald eagle piracy.

Had Benjamin Franklin prevailed, the U.S. emblem might have been the wild turkey. In 1784, Franklin disparaged the national bird’s thieving tendencies and its vulnerability to harassment by small birds. “For my own part,” he wrote, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…”

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