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, early 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).
An adult Bald Eagle is unmistakable—a bright yellow beak with a striking white head and tail that contrasts 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.
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 typically 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 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.
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 the 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 (MassWildlife) teamed up with Mass Audubon to launch a project to restore the Bald Eagle as a breeding bird in the Commonwealth. In the spring of that year, two eagle nestlings were brought from Michigan and raised in a specially constructed nest platform on a remote peninsula in Quabbin Reservoir.
Caretakers used eagle "puppets" to feed the chicks so that the birds would imprint on their own species rather than on humans. The hope was that these young birds would either remain or return to breed in the area in which they were reared.
The birds were successfully introduced into the wild. Between 1982 and the end of the program in 1988, a total of 41 Bald Eagle chicks were brought from Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Michigan to be raised and released at Quabbin Reservoir.
Bald Eagles take four or five years to reach breeding maturity. And in 1989, two pairs of eagles successfully reared young at the Quabbin Reservoir.
In the years that followed, the number of nesting eagles increased and spread across the state. Once young eagles are able to find food on their own (usually in late summer), the parents go their separate ways.
Breeding Status Today
Experts have since confirmed nests throughout the state, including Cape Cod which had its first nest since 1905 in 2020. In 2012, Bald Eagles nested at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton and Northampton—the first confirmed eagle nest at a Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuary.
Massachusetts-born eagles have also been documented as nesting in Connecticut and New York, adding to the overall recovery of the species in the northeast.
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.
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.