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Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
The bald eagle, our national bird, is a member of the Accipitridae family; which also includes hawks, kites, and old-world vultures. The bald eagle’s scientific name signifies a sea (halo) eagle (aeetos) with a white (leukos) head. At one time, the word “bald” meant “white,” not hairless.
Bald eagles are found in every state except Hawaii. Scientists loosely divide eagles into four groups based on their physical characteristics and behavior. The bald eagle is a sea or fish eagle.
From 1967 to 1995, the bald eagle had been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in the lower 48 states. In July of 1995, the US Fish and Wildlife Service upgraded the status of bald eagles to “threatened.” On June 28, 2007 the American bald eagle was removed from the threatened list. The Bald eagle remains threatened under state regulations in Washington State.
The bald eagle is also protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act. These federal laws prohibits the take, transport, sale, barter, trade, import and export, and possession of eagles, making it illegal for anyone to collect eagles and eagle parts, nests, or eggs without a permit. Native Americans are able to possess these emblems which are traditional in their culture.
In Washington, there are currently more than 550 active Bald Eagle nests, including many in urban settings. Productivity rates are below target levels but are improving on the Hood Canal and the Lower Columbia River, perhaps due to the decrease in environmental contaminants.
Bald Eagles eat live and dead fish. They also eat ducks and other ater birds as well as small mammals. In the San Juan Islands, rabbits, hunted living or scavenged dead, are the main source of food. In many parts of Washington in winter, American Coots are an important part of the diet as well. Sometimes eagles catch a fish that is too large to lift and must swim to shore with their catch.
Bald Eagles build large stick nests called eyries in tall trees or on cliffs. They continue to build up the eyries year after year until they are massive, up to 9 feet in diameter and weighing up to 2,000 pounds. Bald Eagles do not breed until they are 4 to 6 years old, but when they pair for mating they tend to remainpaired for life.
The egg-laying season in western Washington is during the last days of February and the first days of March, the female lays 2 eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs for 34 to 36 days.
For the first two weeks after the young hatch, one parent is with the chicks almost constantly. The young do not start to fly until they are 10 to 12 weeks old, and the parents continue to feed and defend them for another 2 to 3 months.
Many of the Bald Eagles that breed in Washington are permanent residents. However some birds from western Washington leave the state in late summer and early fall and move north to exploit food sources such as salmon, then return by January to breed. Some birds that breed farther north winter in Washington.