Call of the bald eagle. When was the last time you watched a movie, or nature or wilderness program, and heard the call of, you assume, the majestic bald eagle? Nine times out of ten that call is the producer’s slight of hand, so to speak, as the eagle’s shrill whine just isn’t sexy enough for prime time. That dubbed call you hear falls to the red-tailed hawk.
Any place with a significant body of water in British Columbia, Yukon, or Alaska will host bald eagles in abundance. Let’s dig in.
The bald eagle has been the national symbol of the United States since 1782, and a spiritual symbol of native people for much longer than that. Had Benjamin Franklin had his way, the U.S. mascot might have been the wild turkey. In 1784, Franklin denigrated the eagle’s thieving tendencies (a bald eagle will often snatch a fish from an osprey’s talons in midair) and its vulnerability to harassment by small birds. “For my own part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He doesn’t get his living honestly…besides, he is a rank coward: the little king bird, not bigger than a sparrow, attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.”
- The bald eagle builds the largest nest of any American bird, which may exceed 8 feet wide, 12 feet deep, and weigh more than 2 tons!
- Bald eagles are long lived. The oldest bird recorded in the wild was 38 years old, but in captivity they live into their 50s.
- The word bald, in English, is from the older usage meaning “white” rather than “hairless,” referring to the eagle’s white head and tail feathers and their contrast with its darker body (think piebald).
- The only larger species of raptor-like bird is the condor, but the golden eagle’s wingspan is about 1.2 inches longer than the 7.5 feet of the bald eagle.
Note: Five or six years ago, some of you may remember, I wrote about an incident in Nevada, near infamous Area 51. It was a rainy afternoon on a windy secluded section of roadway, and a glance into our rear view mirror revealed a class A RV hugging our rear bumper, probably desiring to pass. Looking ahead, I spied what looked like two children (or were they aliens escaped from Area 51?) standing beside the road. This put me into a state of cognitive dissonance just long enough to spy one of the “children” sprout wings and lift off the ground. The closer you get to Area 51, the more probable these events become. As we quickly approached, it became apparent that these “children” were huge golden eagles and the second bird flexed its wings to lift off. Its size and our rapid approach prevented it from gaining any more than about three feet off the ground and unfortunately, thrust it directly onto our oncoming Airstream corner panel with a very loud THUD! As if in slow motion, we could hear the bird bouncing along the side of our rig and then off onto the shoulder. The other RV followed in our slipstream, probably not witnessing the encounter, thus preventing me from slowing down, stopping, and seeing if our flying “child” survived the hit. There was no place to pull over, and it wasn’t until we eventually got to a layby/rest area that we discovered a bowling ball-sized dent through our front rock guard into the main Airstream panel. I estimated that our 15-pound eagle hit us with approximately 600 pounds of force—not a good outcome for the poor lift-impaired golden eagle, we sadly note.
An awesome opportunity to witness eagles is along the Kenai Peninsula. There we stopped along our journey to stare out across the Cook Inlet, the Gulf of Alaska, and the towering mountains forming the beginning of the Aleutian Island chain, looking like spiny fins on the back of a sea serpent. This region is a sportfisher’s paradise, and a queue of boats can often be seen launching out into the piscine-rich waters. Some launch sites offer boat retrieval services, with huge tractor/tugs driving out into the surf, and providing a cushioned framed cage for boat docking near shore. Savvy eagles spy these activities with “eagle eyes,” as they know that the rich catch will soon be cut, cleaned, and guts discarded, leaving carcasses of easy pickings.
Where rivers and streams pour into the bay, eagles congregate to socialize, challenge each other, mate, demonstrate and practice flying skills, and snag salmon. Eagles and humans share this resource-rich symbiotic world, eagles standing by for handouts or diving and capturing fish on the wing, humans hauling in halibut, salmon, rock fish, and giant ling cod of enormous sizes. I’ve never been much for fishing, but do appreciate this spectacle of coastal biodiversity and interdependence.
Let’s talk about the eagle eyes mentioned above. Eagles and other birds of prey have eyes that can see 4–8 times farther than humans. This translates to the difference between our 20/20 vision and their 20/4–5. Interpreted, this means they can see things from 20 feet away that we can only see from 4–5 feet away. One example of this is, if we had eagle eyes we would be able to see an ant crawling on the ground from the top of a 10-story building, plus with much greater color acuity and ultraviolet capability. Imagine hunting for rabbits on the wing and spotting one up to two miles away! Eagles also have a much broader shade distinction, useful for flying high over a body of water and spotting the shaded movement of fish below the water’s surface or UV-reflecting urine trails of land prey. Eagle eyes are shaped to allow a 30-degree greater angle of vision, which means they can turn their heads and capture up to 340 degrees of clear sight, then with telescopic center vision, zoom in on a target. What amazing adaptation for a creature that weighs about 10 pounds yet has eyes very much the same size as ours!
Eagles also have remarkable flying ability, reaching diving speeds of up to 100 mph, and have been seen to fly underneath geese, upside down, to grasp their breasts and bring them to nests or ground. They can snare fish with one talon and use the other for tearing the flesh to eat while in flight.
Longevity and mortality
Eagles live about 20 years in the wild and their primary predators are foxes, cougars, ravens, and owls. Humans, however, and as usual, have been the number one cause of their mortality. In the mid-1950s, our use of the pesticide DDT caused their egg shells to weaken through biomagnification, that is, the transmission of pesticide up the food chain. This process caused the reduction of their ability to process calcium and consequently their egg shells were weakened, causing the loss of embryos. In the mid 50s there were only 512 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous United States. During our time spent in the Kenai Peninsula, we spotted nearly a third of this recovered number since DDT was banned. In the early 90s that population had rebounded to well over 100,000 and is now close to 200,000.
Native American/First Nations people revere both bald and golden eagles as symbols of bravery, and messengers between gods and humans. Feathers, claws, and leg and wing bones are used in ceremonies for power transfer and healing, and used in headdresses, clothing, and fans.
Eagle feather law stipulates that only registered members of native tribes may possess eagle feathers for spiritual and ritual use. The National Eagle Repository exists as a means to receive, possess, and store eagles that are found dead to distribute to federally recognized tribes.
First Nations culture provides a positive example of respect for this bird and all living creatures. The eagles’ return is one fantastic success story in a plethora of biodiversity loss in the past century, and an example of what can be accomplished if humans pull together for a common goal.
Thanks Jim! Looking forward to hearing about your adventures ahead!
Living in Beauty
Ben, I really enjoyed reading this post. I learned a lot about eagles I was unaware of, thanks! We will be in the Kenai area in about a week or so and will be on the look out for these amazing birds. Jim
Thanks Jim! We’re looking forward to hearing your adventures ahead. :^)
An informative review of the natural history of the bald eagle, made highly readable by Ben and Ruth’s real-life observations of these birds in Alaska. The attached videos are worth a listen.
Thanks! Every day is a study in nature!