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Bald Eagle Habitat

bald eagle perched in a tree

By Filip Tkaczyk

Learn more about what makes good bald eagle habitat and how to recognize their presence. This magnificent species was until recently an endangered species.  It is a powerful predator and scavenger, feeding on fish, birds, some mammals and carrion. These huge birds grow to between 30 and 36 inches in length, with a wingspan of 6.5 to 7 feet! Adults have dark bodies and wings, with distinctly white heads and tails. Juvenile birds are uniformly dark or mottled with some pale areas overall.

Snoqualmie river

What makes good bald eagle habitat?

This eagle species is nearly always tied to productive waterways, such as rivers, lakes, reservoirs and saltwater bays. Rivers that have runs of fish such as shad or salmon may have the densest populations of bald eagles.  Generally speaking, healthier, cleaner waterways have more bald eagles.

bald eagle nest

These birds require tall, thick trees to use as nesting sites. Their nests can be huge, often 4-5 feet across and 3-5 feet tall.  The largest bald eagle nest ever recorded was over 9 feet wide and nearly 20 feet tall.  That nest weighed in at over two tons!

bald eagle footprint

Bald Eagle Tracks and Sign

The tracks of bald eagles are very large, muscular and show marks from their long talons. Like typical (anisodactyl) bird tracks, eagles tracks show 3 toes forward and 1 toe facing backward. Similar to the tracks of much smaller ravens and crows, eagle tracks show the forward inner and middle toes closer together and one forward toe to the outside.

Eagle tracks measure 6 to 7.5 inches long!

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Typically, when on the ground, eagles walk and sometimes hop. They are heavy and not very fast on the ground. Their trails are most commonly encountered in the sand or silt along major rivers.

Salmon carcasses fed on by bald eagles often have the fish's spine and head intact (whereas ospreys feeding on salmon often leave no remains).

Primary feathers from a bald eagle are dark-colored (with white splotches on juveniles) and are 14 to 20 inches in length. They lack the "melted plastic"-looking patch (tegmen) on the inner side that geese feathers have. Keep in mind that it is against the law to possess eagle feathers, or any other migratory bird feathers or parts, without a permit.

Additional Resources:

National Wildlife Federation information on Bald Eagles

Cornell Lab Bald Eagle Page

US Fish & Wildlife Bald Eagle Fact Sheet

Related Courses:

Wildlife Tracking Courses at Alderleaf

By the way, when you're out birding, it's important to know how to stay safe in the outdoors, especially if you were to get lost. Right now you can get a free copy of our mini survival guide here, where you'll discover six key strategies for outdoor emergencies, plus often-overlooked survival tips.

Filip Tkaczyk

About the Author: Filip Tkaczyk is a periodic guest teacher at Alderleaf. He also wrote the field guide Tracks & Sign of Reptiles & Amphibians. Learn more about Filip Tkaczyk.

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