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Bald Eagle

Copyright Barbara Samuelson 1997

Bald eagle at the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center, Sitka, Alaska.

Bald Eagle Facts:

What is the scientific name?

Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Pronounced hal-ih-ay-EE-tus lew-koh-SEFF-ah-lus

What does it mean? "White-headed sea eagle" Haliaeetus is a Greek word meaning "sea eagle". Leucocephalus is Greek and is made up from two other Greek words, leukos meaning "white" and kephale meaning "head." In reference to the mature bald eagle's white head.

Why is it called the "Bald" eagle?

Odd that a bird with feathers all over its head has the name bald. However, back in the year 1200 a language was spoken called Middle English. The Middle English word balled meant "shining white" and was a reference to the mature bald eagle's white head.

How big are they?

Females are larger, but both sexes are between 28 and 38 inches in length and have a wingspread between 66 and 96 inches (up to eight feet!). Females weigh between 10 and 14 pounds, males between 8 and 9 pounds.

How fast can they fly?

Between 36 and 44 miles per hour. One was clocked at 30 miles per hour carrying a fish. Bald Eagles can reach speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour when diving.

How long do they live?

Uncertain. Between 80 to 90% of new born bald eagles die each year. The oldest recorded living in the wild was 21 years, 11 months, however Bald Eagles are believed to live 30 years or longer in the wild. In captivity they have lived up to 48 years. They mate for life and build huge nests in the tops of large trees near rivers, lakes, marshes, or other wetland areas. Nests are often re-used year after year. With additions to the nests made annually, some may reach 10 feet across and weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. Although bald eagles may range over great distances, they usually return to nest within 100 miles of where they were raised.

What do they eat?

Mainly fish, but also waterfowl, seabirds, mammals, and carrion. The kind of fish it eats is dependent upon geographic location and what is available. Species include salmon, eels, cod, herrings, carp, trout, and catfish. Bird species include loons, ducks, cormorants, pelicans, murrelets, terns, wild turkeys, ravens, flickers, and sparrows. Mammal species include foxes, sea otters, rats, muskrats, porcupine, opossum, skunk, prairie dogs, jackrabbits and squirrels. It has also been known to attack domestic animals such as small pigs and dogs.


Bald Eagles build a large stick nest, sometimes weighing over 1 ton, usually about 6 feet in diameter and over 6 six feet tall. The nests are built near the tops of the largest trees near a river of lake. The females lay from 1 to 3 eggs. Both males and females will incubate the eggs. The young eagles hatch after 35 days and are ready to leave the nest between 10 and 12 weeks of age.

Raptors form lasting pair bonds and are considered monogamous - which means they have one mate. However, researchers are working to determine whether it's actually the mate or the nest site that holds the strongest loyalty. Both birds may be strongly bonded to a nest site where they have had success in breeding, and, as a result, both birds return to that site year after year and mate with each other. Each season the pair bond is reestablished. If one of the pair dies, the other often will take a new mate.

Wildlife experts believe there may have been 25,000 to as many as 75,000 nesting bald eagles in the lower 48 states when the bird was adopted as our national symbol in 1782. Since that time, the bald eagle has suffered from habitat destruction and degradation, illegal shooting, and contamination of its food source, most notably due to the pesticide DDT. By the early 1960s there were fewer than 450 bald eagle nesting pairs in the lower 48 states.

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