Bald Eagles: Habitat, Diet & Physical Appearance

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda has taught high school science for over 10 years. They have a Master's Degree in Cellular and Molecular Physiology from Tufts Medical School and a Master's of Teaching from Simmons College. They also are certified in secondary special education, biology, and physics in Massachusetts.

In this lesson, you'll be learning about an animal icon of America, the bald eagle. We'll learn where this magnificent bird lives, how to identify it and what it eats.

What Are Bald Eagles?

Imagine hiking in the Alaskan wilderness. It's the start of the salmon run in July, with tens of thousands of fish swimming upstream. You see salmon jumping out of the river, with plenty of wildlife taking advantage of the situation. As you walk, a giant shadow passes over you. As you look up, small squawks catch your attention and you realize the shadow is from a bird with a wingspan of over six feet. The characteristic white head, yellow beak, and dark brown feathers give this creature away as a bald eagle.

Bald eagles are the national bird of the United States. Although they are not bald, but rather have a white head in stark contrast to darker colored feathers. This beautiful bird is readily found hunting Alaskan salmon, but exists all over the United States and Canada. Next, we'll look at the specific habitats of the bald eagle.

Habitat

For many decades, a bald eagle was a rare sight. Their numbers declined due to poaching and use of toxic pesticides that contaminated their prey. However, since the 1970's, the bald eagle population is on the rise and you can find them nearly everywhere in North America.

The tundra, a dry, cold environment of the north, and coniferous forests of Alaska and Canada are home to the largest bald eagle populations. Bald eagles can be seen here all year long, flying high in the sky, using their excellent eyesight to hunt prey on the ground. However, the bald eagle is quite adaptable and anywhere you find a large body of water, you can usually see a bald eagle.

Bald eagles prefer to live near water because fish is a major part of their diet. They live near the coast of Alaska, the Great Lakes, and other major waterways, like the Mississippi River. Although their prevalence in Canada might lead you to believe these birds require cold temperatures, they can also be found along the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida. Nearly anywhere in the United States and Canada where there are large bodies of water, you can find bald eagles during at least some part of the year.

A bald eagle in the tropical environment of Florida
bald eagle in Florida

In the dead of winter however, cold climates become too much and like other birds, bald eagles migrate. When water freezes over, thus limiting their food source, these eagles migrate south to areas with open waters, such as rivers, dams or lakes. Southern dwelling eagles also must migrate, but for the opposite reason. The summer heat in Florida can be downright oppressive, so during these months, some eagles migrate north to more moderate temperatures.

Diet

Picture ordering a delicious seafood entree at a fancy restaurant. The fish is served to you on a plate, cleaned, deboned and prepared for your fork. Bald eagles also have a taste for fish, but unlike humans, they use their razor sharp talons and beaks to tear fish out of the water and shred them into bite size pieces. As carnivores, or meat eaters, fish comprise most of a bald eagle's diet. However, they are also opportunistic feeders and will take advantage of whatever is available, much like we might scavenge for leftovers.

They not only will prey on other fresh meat, like rodents, reptiles or other small birds, but they also are perfectly comfortable with taking someone else's meal. Even though the bald eagle is a source of national pride, this bird is known for its thievery. Bald eagles will take each other's catch, or that of other animals, and even feed on dead animals. Eagles are so notorious for this behavior that Ben Franklin voiced his concerns about making this thief our national bird.

A blad eagle feeds on whale carrion
bald eagle with carrion

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