The Life of a Bald Eagle

     Since last week I have been enjoying tuning in on three little bald eaglets and their parents in a nest 80 feet above the ground near Decorah, Iowa.  Thanks to a webcam set up by the Raptor Resource Project, people are tuning in by the tens of thousands to watch the progress of the little ones, born the first week of April.  You can view them too by clicking here: 

     It has been fascinating to watch the mother sit on the nest, and to see parts of the fuzzy little babies poking out from under her breast.  And to see a parent (both mother and father share in the feeding of bald eagle babies) gently inserting scraps of fish or other flesh into the little mouths.  In fact, watching the bald eagle family has been so interesting, I wanted to learn more.  So I did a little online research.

     First, I wanted to know how the bald eagle became the United States emblem.  The bald eagle was chosen in 1782 for several of its characteristics:  its long life; its great strength; its majestic looks; and because the bird was then believed to exist only in North America.  I remember much distress back in the 1960s, when the number of bald eagle nesting pairs had fallen to well under 500.  It was feared that our national symbol was on its way to extinction.  

     But the bald eagle is an American success story.  Protective efforts, including the bird’s placement on the Endangered Species List, were so successful that bald eagle numbers rebounded.  In 2007, the U.S. Interior Department removed the bird from the Endangered Species List.  Today, there are an estimated 9,800 breeding pairs in the U.S!  The bird’s range is broad, with its greatest concentration in Alaska.  

     Both the male and female bald eagle have a white head and tail, yellow beak and talons, and brownish feathers on back and breast.  The female is generally larger than the male.  Renowned for its keen eyesight, the bald eagle can fly at heights of 10,000 feet and at speeds of 30-35 mph.  The bird weighs 10-14 pounds, and its wingspan extends about 6-7  1/2 feet.  The bald eagle may live as long as 30 years, and a single bird has about 7,000 feathers!  The mainstay of the bald eagle’s diet is fish (salmon accounts for the bird’s great success in the Pacific Northwest), although it will also eat carrion.  The bald eagle is a strong swimmer.

     Bald eagles reach maturity at about 4 or 5 years.  At that time they choose a partner, with whom they mate for life.  If a partner  dies, the other will likely accept another mate.  Each breeding pair of bald eagles builds a nest, usually high in a tree near a river or coast.  A typical bald eagle nest is about 5 feet across.  A nesting pair uses the same nest year after year, adding to it annually.  Nests as large as 9 feet across have been spotted, and they can weigh up to 2 tons!

     The female lays 1-3 eggs in the spring.  She incubates the eggs with her body for about 35 days.  During that time, the male frequently brings conifer sprigs to the nest.  Why he does this is not known.  One theory is that he is trying to deodorize the nest!

     Eggs hatch in the order they were laid.  Each eaglet ‘pecks’ its way out of its egg with its egg tooth, a pointed bump on the top of its beak.  The hatching process takes 12-48 hours.  After the eggs begin hatching, the female spends almost all her time in the nest caring for the babies.  The male brings in food, which both parents shred and feed directly into the babies’ mouths.  To view a lovely little video of feeding time in the Decorah, Iowa, nest, click here:  The video was made a couple of weeks ago, when the babies were much smaller than they are now.  And are they cute!  All covered in white down, heads wagging goofily.

     Bald eagle parents, careful not to harm their babies, ball their talons into ‘fists’ when moving about the nest, so they won’t inadvertently skewer a chick! 

     The eaglets grow rapidly, adding about a pound of weight every 4-5 days.  After 3 weeks, the eaglets are about a foot tall, and their feet and beaks are nearly adult size.  Between 4-5 weeks, the young are able to stand and can begin tearing their own food.  At eight weeks, the young birds’ appetites are at their greatest.  At this point, the parents spend most of their time hunting for food, and the eaglets begin ‘stretching their wings.’  Gradually, the eaglets’ down is replaced by juvenile feathers, and at 10-13 weeks, they take their first flight.

       Even after their first flight, the young eagles stay around the nest for 4-5 additional weeks.  During this time, they take short, ‘practice’ flights and develop their flying, landing, and hunting skills.  Parents still provide the food. 

     Living independently away from ‘home’ is not easy for the youngest bald eagles.  After building their strength and skills during their first summer and fall, they face the rigors of winter.  The first winter is generally the most difficult one in the life of a bald eagle.--April Moore 



3 Responses to “The Life of a Bald Eagle”

  1. Priscilla Says:

    Thanks for your research, April – fascinating. Since tuning into the eaglet cam I have been meaning to look up more information about eagles, so I really appreciate what you’ve posted! Can’t wait til the eaglets take their first flights.

  2. Tanya Bohlke Says:

    We’ve been watching, though eaglecam, a family of eagles at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens. The three babies have just been banded. Sadly, the mother just yesterday was killed by an airplane and the community is waiting to see whether dad can carry the load.

  3. Larry Says:

    That was a good point.I would agree.
    It was interesting and very insightful.

    Larry H

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