Bald Eagle

haliaeetus leucocephalus

Last updated: May 27, 2024
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff

Bald eagles have 20/5 vision, which is much sharper than a human's


Bald Eagle Scientific Classification

Scientific Name
haliaeetus leucocephalus

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Bald Eagle Conservation Status

Bald Eagle Locations

Bald Eagle Locations

Bald Eagle Facts

Fish, birds, and small mammals
Fun Fact
Bald eagles have 20/5 vision, which is much sharper than a human's
Biggest Threat
Pesticide use
Most Distinctive Feature
The white plumage on the head
Other Name(s)
American eagle
70-90 inches
Incubation Period
35 days
Near forests
Wolverines, bobcats, foxes, bears, raccoons, and birds
Common Name
bald eagle
Number Of Species
North America
Average Clutch Size
Nesting Location
Cliffs, trees, buildings, and ground
Age of Molting
8-14 weeks

Bald Eagle Physical Characteristics

  • Brown
  • Yellow
  • White
Top Speed
100 mph
15-20 years in the wild
28-38 inches

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“Some bald eagle’s nests can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds.”

An endearing symbol of strength and power, the bald eagle is one of the most popular animals in all of North America. It soars majestically in the air, enthralling bird watchers and enthusiasts alike. While it was once on the brink of extinction, today it has recovered sufficiently to represent an astonishing conservation success story. This article will cover some fascinating facts about the appearance, behavior, and life history of the bald eagle.

Largest Birds of Prey - Bald Eagle

The Bald Eagle can see five times as well as humans.

3 Incredible Bald Eagle Facts!

  • One of the most amazing facts about the bald eagle is its remarkable vision. This bird can see four to five times as well as the typical human. It has superior color vision and the ability to see ultraviolet light. And it has a 340-degree field of view, which nearly wraps around behind its heads. Excellent vision helps to compensate for the other weaker senses.
  • The bald eagle will sometimes save energy by stealing the freshly killed prey of another bird. This behavior prompted Benjamin Franklin to say that the bald eagle was a bird of “bad moral character.”
  • The bald eagle has been the national bird of the United States since 1782.

Birds are believed to have evolved from Theropods like these Allosauruses during the Mesozoic Era.


Scientists believe that birds evolved from reptiles called Theropods between 144 million and 65 million years ago during the Mesozoic Era. Feathers formed from reptilian scales and beaks eventually replaced teeth. Fossil records from this period indicate that the earliest birds actually had teeth. Around tens of millions of years ago, an ancient group of birds called Kites began hunting and eating fish.

The first eagles descended from Kites 36 million years ago and are known as sea eagles. They were like Kites in that they hunted fish and had feet that were featherless. The earliest fossil that closely resembles the bald eagle dates back about one million years ago.

bald eagle in flight

Bald eagles have developed special adaptations for hunting fish.

Bald eagles have developed many adaptations that help them to hunt fish and waterfowl. Their feet each have four powerful toes with sharp talons and tiny projections called spicules that help them to grasp their prey. Bald eagles have serrations on the roof of their mouths to help hold slippery fish and the black pigment in their wing feathers are evolved to provide strength to feathers when diving into the water. These majestic birds are made for hunting fish.


The bald eagle is considered a sea eagle – a descendant of the ancient Kite, which consists of three species pairs. Each species pair consists of a white and a tan-headed species:

Bald eagle and white-tailed eagle

  • Bald eagle: A large bird of prey found in North America and the national bird of the United States. This sea eagle has evolved into a perfect fish hunter with special adaptations over millions of years of evolution. Sub-species: Northern bald eagle (Canada and Alaska) and Southern bald eagle (lower 48 states)
  • White-tailed eagle: A very large sea eagle with a range that covers most of Eurasia. With a wingspan that can measure up to 8 feet, this is the largest of the living sea eagles. The white-tailed eagle is the national bird of Germany.
Largest Birds of Prey - White-tailed Eagle

The White-tailed Eagle is found in Russia and Eurasia.

Sanford’s and white-bellied sea eagles

  • Sandford’s eagle: This large sea eagle has dark feathers with a creamy-white head, a distinctive dark eye-line, and a massive beak. Its tail is diamond-shaped and its wingspan is broad. This eagle lives in the Solomon Island archipelago – preferring coastal waters.
  • White-Bellied Sea Eagle: Frequently seen on the coasts of Australia, the white-bellied sea eagle ranges from New Guinea and Indonesia through Southeast Asia into China. Known for its loud, goose-like honking noise, this beautiful eagle has a white head, breast, underwing, and tail. Its upper feathers are gray.

White-Bellied Sea Eagles are common on the Australian coast.

African and Madagascar fish eagles

  • African eagle: The African fish eagle can be found throughout sub-Saharan Africa wherever large bodies of open water occur. This large eagle has a white head, neck, and collar and is the national bird of Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The African fish eagle’s loud distinctive call is considered to be an iconic sound of Africa.
  • Madagascar fish eagle: Endemic to the coast of Northwest Madagascar, this critically endangered eagle is the national bird of its home country. With a pale brown head, brown body, and whitetail, this is another sea eagle who prefers coastal waters to freshwater environments.
An African fish eagle with a fish in its talons skimming the surface of a lake

African fish eagles have rough soles so fish don’t slip out of their talons.

Where to Find the Bald Eagle

The bald eagle is the only member of the sea eagle genus to live exclusively in North America. There have been sightings as far south as Belize and Bermuda and as far north as the Arctic. The most common habitats are mature forests with a large source of water nearby.

bald eagle nest

Measuring on average five to six feet in diameter, the bald eagle nest is the largest of any American bird.


The bald eagle pair prefers to construct its nest in the canopy of tall trees. If that isn’t available, then it may choose a cliff face, an artificial structure, or the ground. Sticks are woven together and lined with lichen or moss to construct the nest. Measuring some five to six feet in diameter, it is perhaps the largest nest of any American bird.

Scientific Name

The scientific name of the bald eagle is Haliaeetus leucocephalus. Haliaeetus is the Greek term for the sea eagle, while leucocephalus is the combination of two words: leukos, meaning white, and kephale, meaning head. This species is closely related to the African fish eagle, white-tailed eagle, and Steller’s sea eagle.

bald eagle perched on column

Bald eagles are easily recognized by their large size and distinctive white head.

Size, Appearance, and Behavior

The identification of this American bird is a relatively simple matter. Measuring about 28 to 38 inches tall from head to tail, it easily ranks among the largest birds in all of North America. When its wings are outstretched as it soars gracefully in the sky, the bald eagle can sometimes reach more than seven feet from one tip to the other. Most of the body is covered in dark brown plumage, but the head and tail feathers are both covered in white feathers. They also have strong yellow talons and sharp beaks specialized for killing prey. It’s estimated that the female is about 25% larger than the male on average, but otherwise, both sexes look the exact same, which makes identification very difficult unless they’re standing side by side.

The bald eagle is one of the largest birds in North America.

Bald eagles are extremely strong fliers that seem to glide effortlessly above the ground on thermal currents and strong updrafts for miles in all directions. While they mostly hunt and sleep alone in the non-breeding season, bald eagles do form strong pair bonds with each other to raise a new brood every year; they communicate through a series of high-pitched chirps, whistles, and chattering sounds. When nesting sites are particularly scarce, bald eagles may start dangerous or deadly fights with each other to challenge the territory.

Migration Pattern and Timing

Northern populations from Canada and the upper United States tend to migrate south for the winter. Some eagles may only travel a few miles for better foraging opportunities, while others may travel hundreds of miles to escape the cold.


The bald eagle is a carnivorous bird. The diet consists entirely of meat.

What does the bald eagle eat?

As an opportunist predator, the bald eager feasts on a diet of fish, waterfowl, and small mammals. It sits on a high perch or glides in the air searching for prey on the ground or water below with its exceptional eyesight. When it spots something, it will dive down and grasp the prey in its talons.

Predators, Threats, and Conservation Status

Bald eagles have been long threatened by hunting, trapping, accidents, and dangerous chemicals. Throughout the course of the 20th century, they were nearly driven to extinction by pesticide use, which made adults infertile and thinned out their eggshells. The banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972 and the hard work of conservationists have led to a revival in the fortunes of the bald eagle. It is currently listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN Red List.

What eats the bald eagle?

An adult bald eagle does not have any natural predators in the wild. Humans’ use of pesticides is the only thing that has nearly driven it to extinction. Bald eagle chicks and eggs are preyed upon by bobcats, wolverines, black bears, foxes, raccoons, owls, gulls, crows, and other large birds.

baby bald eagle with mother

Bald eagle chicks are cared for by both parents.

Reproduction, Young, and Molting

The bald eagle is believed to form lifelong monogamous pairs that last until one partner dies. They reinforce their bond with extravagant courtship displays in which they lock their feet together while spinning toward the ground. They will also swoop down at each other in the air. The mating pair produces only a single brood of one to three eggs per year. The timing of reproductive season often occurs from the late winter to early spring. Both parents take turns incubating the egg, while the other one hunts for food.

It takes an average of 35 days for the chicks to emerge from their eggs sporting a brownish-gray head and tail mottled with white. In the eight to 14 weeks it takes them to gain their full-flight feathers, the juveniles spend a lot of time playing with each other, stretching their wings, and grasping objects with their talons for practice. They are among the fastest-growing birds in North America, but it still takes some five years for the juveniles to reach full maturity and gain their adult plumage. Since they look so radically different from the adults, it can make identification of the juvenile a little tricky. The typical lifespan of a bald eagle in the wild is 15 to 20 years, but one bird lived up to 47 years in captivity.

bald eagle hunting salmon

Bald Eagles have made a comeback from near extinction.


The bald eagle used to be among the most persecuted and endangered birds in all of North America. Numbers fell to a low of only a few hundred breeding pairs by the middle of the 20th century. Today numbers have rebounded to 250,000 breeding pairs, about 88% of them occurring in the United States alone.

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About the Author

After a career of working to provide opportunities for local communities to experience and create art, I am enjoying having time to write about two of my favorite things - nature and animals. Half of my life is spent outdoors, usually with my husband and sweet little fourteen year old dog. We love to take walks by the lake and take photos of the animals we meet including: otters, ospreys, Canadian geese, ducks and nesting bald eagles. I also enjoy reading, discovering books to add to my library, collecting and playing vinyl, and listening to my son's music.

Bald Eagle FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Does the bald eagle migrate?

Northern populations are migratory, while southern populations spend most of the year in the same place.

How many eggs does the bald eagle lay?

The mother lays one to three eggs per year, but most chicks don’t survive long enough to reach adulthood.

How fast does the bald eagle fly?

The bald eagle has a normal cruising speed of around 30 miles per hour, but it can dive down at 100 miles per hour.

What is the bald eagle’s wingspan?

The size of the eagle’s wingspan is normally between 70 and 90 inches long.

Where does a bald eagle live?

The bald eagle likes to live near mature, undisturbed forest habitats throughout North America.

How big is a bald eagle?

The bald eagle is about the same size as a lamp.

How much does a bald eagle weigh?

The average weight is nearly 10 pounds.

How tall is a bald eagle?

The size of the species is about 28 to 38 inches long from head to tail.

What other birds look like bald eagles?

Few other birds of prey have a distinctive all-white head. The closest species in terms of overall shape and size is probably the golden eagle.

How Long Do Bald Eagles Live?

The average bald eagle’s lifespan is 20-30 years in the wild. However, their lifespan in captivity has been reported to be up to 50 years. The oldest confirmed bald eagle in the wild was discovered to be 38 years old when it passed away.

What are the key differences between a peregrine falcon and a bald eagle?

The key differences between a peregrine falcon and a bald eagle are taxonomy, appearance, wingspan, distribution, speed, and prey.

What are the differences between harpy eagle and bald eagle?

The key differences between the harpy eagle and the bald eagle are their size, appearance, wingspan, habitat, diet, and conservation status.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.


  1. TheCornellLab / Accessed December 13, 2021
  2. Animal Diversity Web / Accessed December 13, 2021
  3. National Eagle Center / Accessed December 13, 2021