Bald Eagles

Natural History

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) has been our national symbol since 1782, when Congress adopted the design for the Great Seal of the United States. Congress chose the bald eagle despite Benjamin Franklin advocating the turkey, because he saw the eagle as a bird of poor character since it would steal meals from other animals. Ranging from Alaska to the northern border of Mexico, and from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast, the bald eagle is the only eagle found exclusively on the North American continent. A key symbol in Native American cultures, the bald eagle has more recently been emblematic of freedom and democracy as well as wilderness and the environmental ethic.

The bald eagle is not really bald. “Bald” is from an old English word meaning white. Bald eagles do not acquire their white head and tail feathers until their fifth year of age. Immature birds undergo progressive annual changes in plumage pattern from uniformly dark brown during their first year to extensive white and brown mottling in their fourth year. Other notable features include a large downward-curving yellow bill, and yellow feet with sharp talons for catching prey. Bald eagles are typically found near bodies of water with large trees nearby for nesting. They need freedom from human disturbance to successfully nest. In the Chesapeake Bay area, breeding activity begins in November and can last through mid-July. Most eggs are laid mid-January to late February. Females lay one to three eggs, with a two-egg clutch being the most common. The incubation period lasts 35 days, and both parents participate, but the female does most of the incubating. Both parents take turns hunting and feeding their young. Young eaglets fledge in average of three months (8-14 weeks).

In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List and is a high-profile wildlife conservation success story. Prior to this, Deet had polluted rivers where eagles hunted. The high levels of Deet in the bald eagle diet caused their egg shells to become too thin and brittle, preventing reproductive success.

We have two bald eagles at Maymont located near Raptor Valley. Our newest bald eagle arrived at Maymont in August 2008 from the Wildlife Center of Virginia (WCV). According to the WVC, this bald eagle was admitted on December 9, 2007 from King and Queen County. The bird was found near a roadside garbage collection site with a broken wing. Upon admission, WVC veterinarians operated on the bald eagle to clean the wound and prevent further infection. As the eagle has no wing or flight feathers beyond the wrist, it cannot be returned to the wild. Both of our bald eagles have permanent injuries and cannot be returned to the wild. Since bald eagles are migratory birds, it is important to note that we have special permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to possess and put these birds on exhibit.

Fun Facts

  • The average lifespan of a bald eagle in the wild is 28 years, and 48 years in captivity.
  • Bald eagles can fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet. During level flight, they can achieve speeds of about 30 to 35 mph.
  • Their size increases with latitude; Alaskan birds are noticeably larger.
  • Bald eagle pairs mate for life.
  • Eagles build huge nests called aeries in the tops of trees. These nests may be up to 10 feet across and weigh up to 1,000 pounds!

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