Birds

Bald Eagles at Riverlands

Learn about one of our most popular birds!
Photo: William Drendel
Birds

Bald Eagles at Riverlands

Learn about one of our most popular birds!

Bald Eagles illicit a lot of excitement in the confluence area. People flock to get a look at these birds as they show up in large numbers along the Mississippi in winter. It's true the Bald Eagle is a very special species of bird. Not only are they our national bird, but they have also had a complicated conservation story -- not to mention that impressive wingspan!

Physical Description

Males and females have identical plumage however, females are larger and weigh more than males. This is typical in most raptor species (owls, eagles, hawks).

Adults: White head and tail with brown body and wings. Bright yellow beak.

Juveniles (1-5 years): Brown body with brown beak (1st year)

Mottled brown and white body with brown beak slowly turning to yellow (2-3rd year)

Whiter head and tail with almost completely yellow beak (4-5th year)

Size:     Wingspan: 6-7.5 feet

              Height: 3-3.5 feet

              Weight: 8-15 lbs.

Habitat

Bald Eagles live near rivers, lakes, and marshes where they can find fish, their staple food. Bald Eagles will also feed on waterfowl, turtles, rabbits, snakes and other small animals and carrion. So yes, our majestic eagles even enjoy a meal of road kill! 

Bald Eagles require ample opportunity for prey, perching areas and nesting sites. That means a healthy body of water surrounded by big strong trees looks like home to an eagle. They can be found along large lakes, reservoirs, rivers and even along the ocean. In winter, the birds congregate near open water in tall trees for spotting prey and to be used to roost at night.

Lifecycle

Bald Eagles lay two to three eggs, but usually only one chick survives to fledge due to fratricide. One chick will outcompete the other chick and sometimes even 'murder' sibling. If there are ample resources it's more likel that more than one chick survive. It takes between four and five years before juvenile Bald Eagles go 'bald'. If you've ever seen a giant brown hawk near the river in the winter it was probably a juvenile Bald Eagle!

Once a Bald Eagle reaches maturity they will look for a mate. That mate will typically be their mate for life, although there are instances of 'divorce'. A mated pair of Bald Eagles also returns to the same nest every year. Every year they continually add to their nest, so Bald Eagle nests can get REALY large! They are built out of sticks and put up in trees. Eagles do not like disturbance so they will try to put their nests in secluded areas. A Bald Eagle may abandon their nests (even with eggs or chicks) if disturbed by humans so be sure to keep your distance if you find a nest!

Eagles are long lived birds with the longest lived Bald Eagle in captivity living up to almost 50 years old! In the wild, the oldest living wild bird was a banded bird that lived to almost 40 years old! You can read more about that eagle here. Most wild Bald Eagles live to be about 20 years old.

Conservation

The Bald Eagle is a conservation success story. They were declared an endangered species in 1967 due to declining numbers because of the chemical pesticide DDT. In 1972 DDT was officially banned by the EPA. Due to the banning of DDT and the conservation and reintroduction efforts of many agencies the Bald Eagle population recovered and it's status was changed from endangered to threatened in 1995. The Bald Eagle was officially delisted and completely taken off of the endangered species list in 2007. It still remains protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Lacey Act.

Where and When to See Bald Eagles in Riverlands

Riverlands is a great location to observe Bald Eagles. We're particularly lucky because we have resident eagles and migrant eagles that use the sanctuary. In a word, that means you have a chance to see a Bald Eagle at Riverlands ANY time of year! However, we have far more sightings in the winter months starting in November, peaking in December and January and then sightings start to decline in March.

Often the best place to see Bald Eagles is right inside of the (warm) center! There are high powered scopes that are available for any visitor to use to get an up-close view of the Bald Eagles that are often perched over Ellis Bay. 

How you can help, right now