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American Bald Eagle

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a bird of prey found in North America. A sea eagle, it has two known subspecies and forms a species pair with the white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), which occupies the same niche as the bald eagle in the Palearctic. Its range includes most of Canada and Alaska, all of the contiguous United States, and northern Mexico. It is found near large bodies of open water with an abundant food supply and old-growth trees for nesting.

American Bald Eagle

The bald eagle is an opportunistic feeder which subsists mainly on fish, which it swoops down upon and snatches from the water with its talons. It builds the largest nest of any North American bird and the largest tree nests ever recorded for any animal species, up to 4 m (13 ft) deep, 2.5 m (8.2 ft) wide, and 1 metric ton (1.1 short tons) in weight. Sexual maturity is attained at the age of four to five years.

Bald eagles are not actually bald; the name derives from an older meaning of the word, "white headed". The adult is mainly brown with a white head and tail. The sexes are identical in plumage, but females are about 25 percent larger than males. The yellow beak is large and hooked. The plumage of the immature is brown.

The bald eagle is the national bird of the United States of America and appears on its seal. In the late 20th century it was on the brink of extirpation in the contiguous United States. Populations have since recovered, and the species was removed from the U.S. government's list of endangered species on July 12, 1995, and transferred to the list of threatened species. It was removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in the contiguous states on June 28, 2007.

The bald eagle forms a species pair with the white-tailed eagle of Eurasia. This species pair consists of a white-headed and a tan-headed species of roughly equal size; the white-tailed eagle also has overall somewhat paler brown body plumage. The two species fill the same ecological niche in their respective ranges. The pair diverged from other sea eagles at the beginning of the Early Miocene (c. 10 Ma BP) at the latest, but possibly as early as the Early/Middle Oligocene, 28 Ma BP, if the most ancient fossil record is correctly assigned to this genus.[13]

The plumage of an adult bald eagle is evenly dark brown with a white head and tail. The tail is moderately long and slightly wedge-shaped. Males and females are identical in plumage coloration, but sexual dimorphism is evident in the species, in that females are 25% larger than males.[10] The beak, feet and irises are bright yellow. The legs are feather-free, and the toes are short and powerful with large talons. The highly developed talon of the hind toe is used to pierce the vital areas of prey while it is held immobile by the front toes.[14] The beak is large and hooked, with a yellow cere.[15] The adult bald eagle is unmistakable in its native range. The closely related African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) (from far outside the bald eagle's range) also has a brown body (albeit of somewhat more rufous hue), white head and tail, but differs from the bald eagle in having a white chest and black tip to the bill.[16]

The plumage of the immature is a dark brown overlaid with messy white streaking until the fifth (rarely fourth, very rarely third) year, when it reaches sexual maturity.[10][14] Immature bald eagles are distinguishable from the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), the only other very large, non-vulturine raptorial bird in North America, in that the former has a larger, more protruding head with a larger beak, straighter edged wings which are held flat (not slightly raised) and with a stiffer wing beat and feathers which do not completely cover the legs. When seen well, the golden eagle is distinctive in plumage with a more solid warm brown color than an immature bald eagle, with a reddish-golden patch to its nape and (in immature birds) a highly contrasting set of white squares on the wing.[17]

The bald eagle has sometimes been considered the largest true raptor (accipitrid) in North America. The only larger species of raptor-like bird is the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), a New World vulture which today is not generally considered a taxonomic ally of true accipitrids.[18] However, the golden eagle, averaging 4.18 kg (9.2 lb) and 63 cm (25 in) in wing chord length in its American race (Aquila chrysaetos canadensis), is merely 455 g (1.003 lb) lighter in mean body mass and exceeds the bald eagle in mean wing chord length by around 3 cm (1.2 in).[16][19] Additionally, the bald eagle's close cousins, the relatively longer-winged but shorter-tailed white-tailed eagle and the overall larger Steller's sea eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus), may, rarely, wander to coastal Alaska from Asia.[16]

The size of the bird varies by location and generally corresponds with Bergmann's rule: the species increases in size further away from the equator and the tropics. For example, eagles from South Carolina average 3.27 kg (7.2 lb) in mass and 1.88 m (6 ft 2 in) in wingspan, smaller than their northern counterparts.[23] One field guide in Florida listed similarly small sizes for bald eagles there, at about 4.13 kg (9.1 lb).[24] Of intermediate size, 117 migrant bald eagles in Glacier National Park were found to average 4.22 kg (9.3 lb) but this was mostly (possibly post-dispersal) juvenile eagles, with 6 adults here averaging 4.3 kg (9.5 lb).[25] Wintering eagles in Arizona (winter weights are usually the highest of the year since, like many raptors, they spend the highest percentage of time foraging during winter) were found to average 4.74 kg (10.4 lb).[26]

The bald eagle's natural range covers most of North America, including most of Canada, all of the continental United States, and northern Mexico. It is the only sea eagle endemic to North America. Occupying varied habitats from the bayous of Louisiana to the Sonoran Desert and the eastern deciduous forests of Quebec and New England, northern birds are migratory, while southern birds are resident, remaining on their breeding territory all year. At minimum population, in the 1950s, it was largely restricted to Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, northern and eastern Canada, and Florida.[35] From 1966 to 2015 bald eagle numbers increased substantially throughout its winter and breeding ranges,[36] and as of 2018 the species nests in every continental state and province in the United States and Canada.[37]

The majority of bald eagles in Canada are found along the British Columbia coast while large populations are found in the forests of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.[38] Bald eagles also congregate in certain locations in winter. From November until February, one to two thousand birds winter in Squamish, British Columbia, about halfway between Vancouver and Whistler. The birds primarily gather along the Squamish and Cheakamus Rivers, attracted by the salmon spawning in the area.[39] Similar congregations of wintering bald eagles at open lakes and rivers, wherein fish are readily available for hunting or scavenging, are observed in the northern United States.[40]

It has occurred as a vagrant twice in Ireland; a juvenile was shot illegally in Fermanagh on January 11, 1973 (misidentified at first as a white-tailed eagle), and an exhausted juvenile was captured in Kerry on November 15, 1987.[41]

The bald eagle occurs during its breeding season in virtually any kind of American wetland habitat such as seacoasts, rivers, large lakes or marshes or other large bodies of open water with an abundance of fish. Studies have shown a preference for bodies of water with a circumference greater than 11 km (7 mi), and lakes with an area greater than 10 km2 (4 sq mi) are optimal for breeding bald eagles.[42]

The bald eagle typically requires old-growth and mature stands of coniferous or hardwood trees for perching, roosting, and nesting. Tree species reportedly is less important to the eagle pair than the tree's height, composition and location.[43] Perhaps of paramount importance for this species is an abundance of comparatively large trees surrounding the body of water. Selected trees must have good visibility, be over 20 m (66 ft) tall, an open structure, and proximity to prey. If nesting trees are in standing water such as in a mangrove swamp, the nest can be located fairly low, at as low 6 m (20 ft) above the ground.[44] In a more typical tree standing on dry ground, nests may be located from 16 to 38 m (52 to 125 ft) in height. In Chesapeake Bay, nesting trees averaged 82 cm (32 in) in diameter and 28 m (92 ft) in total height, while in Florida, the average nesting tree stands 23 m (75 ft) high and is 23 cm (9.1 in) in diameter.[45][46] Trees used for nesting in the Greater Yellowstone area average 27 m (89 ft) high.[47] Trees or forest used for nesting should have a canopy cover of no more than 60%, and no less than 20%, and be in close proximity to water.[42] Most nests have been found within 200 m (660 ft) of open water. The greatest distance from open water recorded for a bald eagle nest was over 3 km (1.9 mi), in Florida.[18]

Bald eagle nests are often very large in order to compensate for size of the birds. The largest recorded nest was found in Florida in 1963, and was measured at nearly 10 feet wide and 20 feet deep.[48]

In Florida, nesting habitats often consist of Mangrove swamps, the shorelines of lakes and rivers, pinelands, seasonally flooded flatwoods, hardwood swamps, and open prairies and pastureland with scattered tall trees. Favored nesting trees in Florida are slash pines (Pinus elliottii), longleaf pines (P. palustris), loblolly pines (P. taeda) and cypress trees, but for the southern coastal areas where mangroves are usually used.[44] In Wyoming, groves of mature cottonwoods or tall pines found along streams and rivers are typical bald eagle nesting habitats. Wyoming eagles may inhabit habitat types ranging from large, old-growth stands of ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa) to narrow strips of riparian trees surrounded by rangeland.[18] In Southeast Alaska, Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) provided 78% of the nesting trees used by eagles, followed by hemlocks (Tsuga) at 20%.[43] Increasingly, eagles nest in man-made reservoirs stocked with fish.[44]

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