About Bald Eagles

The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) has been a powerful emblem in the United States for thousands of years. Revered by many indigenous First Nations peoples to this day, the first European settlers also declared it the symbol of their new homeland.

Sometimes fittingly referred to as the "American Eagle," it occurs only in North America and is typically found near water (fresh or salt). 

A juvenile Bald Eagle in flight at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary (by Mark Faherty/Mass Audubon)
Bald Eagle juvenile by Mark Faherty

Appearance

An adult Bald Eagle is unmistakable—a bright yellow beak with a striking white head and tail that contrast sharply with its dark body. They are the largest bird of prey in Massachusetts and can have wingspans up to 7 feet wide at full maturity.

However, it takes approximately 4-5 years for newborn eagles to acquire their full adult plumage. 

During their first year, young birds are entirely dark. Birds in their second and third years sport a pattern of mottled brown and white. The Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), which is only occasionally seen in Massachusetts, can resemble a young Bald Eagle since it's entirely dark with a golden wash over its head and neck.

Bald Eagle adult bringing stick to nest © Phil Doyle
Bald Eagle nest at Arcadia © Phil Doyle

Behavior & Life Cycle

Both the male and female work together to construct a nest of sticks lined with finer materials, usually high in a living tree. They return to the same nest each year, adding new material with every breeding season.

In fact, nests that are 30-40 years old have been recorded—weighing 1 ton or more and up to 12 feet deep!

Females lay one to three eggs, which hatch at approximately 35 days. Both parents share in the incubation and feeding of the young. In July, somewhere between 10-14 weeks after the babies hatch, they’re ready leave the nest. However, the parents will continue to feed and care for them until September or even October. 

Once the young eagles are able to find food on their own (usually in early fall), the parents go their separate ways and remain solitary until the following breeding season.

Bald Eagle with juvenile plumage perched on tree branch © David Ennis
Young Bald Eagle © David Ennis

Food

Bald Eagles are opportunistic feeders. They mainly prey on fish, but will also readily dine on carrion. In addition, they frequently use their large size to steal food from Osprey and other birds. 

They hunt and eat fish when there's open water. During the winter months, they also prey on the ducks and geese they find swimming in rivers or standing on the ice. Depending on the availability of food, Bald Eagles can fly dozens and dozens of miles from one food source to another. 

Sightings

Bald Eagles are seen with increasing frequency during the winter in Massachusetts, where young birds (which lack the white head and tail) and adults alike will congregate around unfrozen coastal waters, large lakes, and major river systems. Christmas Bird Counts over the last three decades have estimated an increase of more than 7% every year in our winter eagle numbers.

Have you seen a Bald Eagle? Report your sighting through Mass Audubon's eBird portal! Find out how >

Bald Eagle © Joseph Cavanaugh
Bald Eagle © Joseph Cavanaugh

Conservation Status

While considered a rare breeder in the Commonwealth, the Bald Eagle was once a relatively abundant species across North America. But it suffered an alarming decline in the 1950s and 1960s due to widespread use of the toxic pesticide DDT.

In response, the Federal government banned the use of DDT in 1972. Massachusetts conservation agencies and organizations then began looking for sustainable ways to help jumpstart the local population. In 1982, the MA Division of Fisheries & Wildlife teamed up with Mass Audubon to launch the Massachusetts Eagle Restoration Project with the goal of restoring breeding eagle populations to Massachusetts. 

These efforts were ultimately successful, as Bald Eagles are once again a breeding bird in Massachusetts! Their breeding distribution throughout the state is still quite restricted, but new Bald Eagle nests are being discovered almost annually. 

Learn more

Bald Eagles & the Law

Most wild birds, including Bald Eagles, are protected by federal laws as well as by Massachusetts state laws. Under the national Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it is illegal to destroy, relocate, or possess wild birds, their nests, or their eggs. Bald Eagles remain a "Species of Special Concern" under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA).

Additionally, due to their significant importance in religious and cultural practices among indigenous First Nation peoples, federal laws protect all parts of a Bald Eagle (alive or dead) as well as their nests, nest trees, and winter/nighttime roosts. 

The Bottom Line

It's illegal for anyone to keep a Bald Eagle or any parts of a living or dead eagle (feathers, feet, eggs, egg shells) without a federal permit and any applicable state or tribal permits. 

So if you happen across a feather that looks like it might have come from a Bald Eagle, we encourage you to admire it, study it, and take some photos—but do not pick up or disturb the feather in any way.