One of the largest North American raptors is the eagle. Particularly honored by Americans as our national bird, the bald eagle represents strength, beauty, and grace as it soars above both mountains and plains. Until recently however this magnificent bird was an endangered species. While the bald eagle is now listed as “recovered” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, many other species of eagles are listed as species of concern, threatened or endangered.
The word raptor is used to describe about 500 different species of birds who hunt for small to medium sized animals and eat little to no plant material. All are built for speed and efficient hunting. Raptors hunt for food primarily on the wing, using their keen senses, especially vision. Each bird has a hooked beak and talons for catching and tearing meat.
Like all raptors, eagle populations are severely threatened by habitat loss, environmental contaminants and pesticides, and trapping and shooting. Wind power is an important source of alternative energy but it is now beginning to pose another threat to raptors. During their migrations, raptors often concentrate in large numbers along wind-prone flyways where both the birds and wind turbines harness the updrafts.
Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
With its chocolate brown body, white head and tail, large yellow beak and a wingspan of more than six feet, the bald eagle is a distinct national symbol of the United States of America. The species’ range is restricted to North America from Alaska and Canada to Mexico. Fish are their preferred prey but amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals are also a part of their diet depending on season and location.
Bald eagles often mate for life and generally are able to breed when they are five years old, producing one brood per year. They can build massive nests in the tallest trees of significant forest cover or along prominent ridges and on cliffs near open water. Many nests are used in successive years and some are more than eight feet across and weigh up to two tons.
The bald eagle is quite affected by human activities. This large and magnificent bird prefers habitat close to seacoast or even other water bodies such as lakes. The bald eagle loves to be in areas that have an abundance of fish. It is also generally spotted in areas that are free from human interference.
The bald eagle is often seen in areas of North America. It prefers deciduous forest. This bird selects hardwood trees for roosting and nesting. As winter approaches, the bald eagle shifts its location south from the northern areas of Canada or Alaska. This is in search of fish for food and this move usually occurs by late October.
Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
Golden eagles use their agility and speed combined with extremely powerful talons to snatch up prey including rabbits, marmots, ground squirrels, and large mammals such as fox, wild and domestic cats, mountain goats, ibex, and young deer. They will also eat carrion if prey is scarce.
Golden eagles maintain territories that may be as large as 60 square miles. They are monogamous and may remain together for several years or possibly for life. Golden eagles nest in high places including cliffs, trees, or human structures such as telephone poles. They build huge nests to which they may return for several breeding years. Females lay from one to four eggs, and both parents incubate them for 40 to 45 days. Typically, one or two young survive to fledge in about three months.
The plumage color ranges from black-brown to dark brown, with a striking golden-buff crown and nape, which glows in the sunlight - the light reflecting the golden tint, which gives the bird its name. The upper wings also have an irregular lighter area. Immature birds resemble adults, but have a duller more mottled appearance. Also they have a white-banded tail and a white patch at the carpal joint, that gradually disappears with every molt until full adult plumage is reached in the fifth year. Contour feathers may be molted in a short time span.