Birds – North American Bald Eagle


Length—Male 30 to 33 inches; female 35 to 40 inches.

Male and Female—Head, neck, and tail white; after third year rest of plumage dusky brown, the feathers paler on edges; bill and feet yellow; legs bare of feathers. Immature birds are almost black the first year (“black eagles “) ; the bases of feathers white; bill black. Second year they are “gray eagles ” and are then actually larger than adults. The third year, they come into possession of “bald” heads and white tails.

Range-North America, nesting throughout range. Season—Permanent resident.

Emblem of the republic, standing for freedom to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it must be owned that our national bird is a piratical parasite whenever he gets the chance. “The majority of the Falconidae have an attractive physique and superior strength as well as a haughty bearing,” says Mr. Chamberlain. “They are handsome, stalwart ruffians, but they are nothing more. They are neither the most intelligent nor most enterprising of birds, nor the bravest. They are not even the swiftest or most dexterous on the wing; and in bearing, proudly as they carry themselves, are not supreme.” With every pro-vision of nature for noble deeds: keenest sight, superb strength, hardihood, fully developed wings, it is seldom that the American eagle obtains a bite to eat in a legitimate way, but almost invariably by stratagem and plunder. Near the sea and other large bodies of water he sits in majesty upon a cliff, or on the naked limb of some tree commanding a wide view, and watches the osprey—a conspicuous sufferer—and other water fowl course patiently over the waves up and down the coast for a fish. Instantly one is caught, down falls the eagle like Jove’s thunder-bolt from Mount Olympus, and as escape from so overpowering a foe is impossible, the successful fisher quickly drops its prey, while the eagle, dexterously catching it before it touches the water, makes off to his eyrie among the clouds to enjoy it at leisure. Dead fish cast up on the beach, carrion disgorged by intimidated vultures, sea and shore birds (particularly in the South) are devoured by this rapacious feeder. Ducks, geese, gulls, and notably coots, that he condescends to catch himself, are favorite morsels when fish fail. It is said wounded birds suit this unsportsmanlike hunter best. These are picked clean of feathers before the flesh is torn from their bones. In the interior young domestic animals are carried off, but scientists raise their eye-brows at tales of children being borne away by eagles; yet it would seem that some rare instances are well authenticated. Audubon had an adult male in captivity that weighed only fourteen and a half pounds, and although it ate enormously one may grant that an uncaged bird might weigh twenty pounds; still a young child often exceeds that figure, and there is the great resistance of the air to be overcome as well.

When the nesting season approaches, which in the south begins in February and at the far north in May, the eagles may be seen hunting in couples and soaring in great spirals with majestic calm at a dizzy height. As they swoop earthward, the tops of the trees over which they pass sway in the current of air they create. These birds, like most of their class, remain mated throughout their long life, but often quarrel at other seasons than this, when one encroaches upon the prescribed territory where the other is hunting. Now they are especially noisy: cac-caccac screams the male, a sound too like a maniac’s laugh to be pleasant. The cry of the female is more harsh and broken, sufficiently different for one well up in field practice to tell the sex of the bird by its voice.

A tall pine tree near water is, of all nesting sites, the favorite. Next to that a rocky ledge of some bold, inaccessible cliff, or that failing too, the bulky cradle may be laid directly on the ground; but whatever site may be chosen, that forever remains home, a shelter at all seasons, the dearest spot on earth. An immense accumulation of sticks, sod, weeds, corn stalks, hay, pine tops, moss, and other coarse materials make a flat structure four or five feet in breadth and sometimes of even greater height after a succession of annual repairs. While the two or three large, rough, dull white eggs are being incubated by both mates, and especially after the young appear, these eagles, unlike the golden species, become truly magnificent in the fierce defence of their treasures; yet a rooster is easily a match for the cowardly eagle at other times. Immense quantities of food must be carried to the helpless young for the three or four months while they remain in the nest, and for weeks after they learn to fly. Because immature birds reverse nature’s order and are larger than adults, and their plumage undergoes three changes before they appear at the close of the third year in white heads and tails, some early writers described the black eagle, Washington’s eagle, and the bald-headed eagle as three distinct birds, even Audubon and Nuttall treating this one species as two. In whatever phase of plumage, one may know our national bird by its unfeathered tarsi. It is safe to say any eagle seen in the eastern United States is the bald-head, which name, of course, does not indicate that the bird is actually bald like the vultures, but simply hooded with white feathers.