The Bald Eagle: An American Symbol
A National Symbol of Strength and Pride
In the United States, probably no other bird is weighted with as much symbolic meaning as the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Even John James Audubon, in his Ornithological Biography, cannot restrain himself from linking the bird with the young country. Whereas most entries in this book trend towards straightforward description, the passage “White-Headed Eagle” opens with a reminder that this bird graces America’s flag and bears “to distant lands the remembrance of a great people living in a state of peaceful freedom.”
The Bald Eagle tends to hunt from above, either watching from its high perch or flying low over water and land. Whatever the landscape, it waits for its opportunity and then swoops down, using its talons to catch prey.
Regarding diet, the Eagle is an opportunist. It prefers to eat fish, though it will feed on birds and other mammals, and they do not shy away from carrion or even from stealing from smaller birds. This fact may sound surprising, as many people probably consider the Bald Eagle a majestic bird, but even the Audubon Society notes that it’s “not always so majestic in its habits.”
John James Audubon, despite his patriotic leanings, knew the bird’s hunting habits well. In Ornithological Biography, Audubon’s description focuses on the eagle’s killing of a swan. He focuses on the eagle’s power, likening it to “a falling star” and a “flash of lightning,” and paints the eagle as feeling delight in the killing and sharing the prey with its mate. In the end, the eagles “gorge themselves with gore,” leaving the reader with little doubt that, however noble, the eagle can be brutal.
An adult Bald Eagle is easy to identify because it is much larger than any other raptor and its image is frequently used in advertising.
To identify an adult of this species, look for a large bird with a dark brown body and long brown wings. When outstretched, its wingtips separate into “fingers.”
Most tellingly, it has a white head with yellow beak, and its feet are yellow.
Habitat and Range
Though Bald Eagles inhabit both wet and dry areas, they are typically found near water: coastal areas, lakes, and rivers. As larger birds, they need the abundant prey that waterside areas provide, but they do winter in some dry areas as well.
As for migration, they tend to be year-round residents in many coastal areas, including some as far north as the Aleutian Islands. For those occupying northern interior landscapes, they are more likely to migrate south during the colder months.
The Bald Eagle might have been an American symbol, but its patriotic symbolism did not prevent Americans from killing a lot of them. They were frequently hunted and shot, decimating Bald Eagle populations until the passage of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in 1940.
Even after this act was passed, the Bald Eagle’s numbers continued to decline, largely due to widespread use of pesticides, including DDT. As documented in Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, DDT harmed animal populations on two fronts: 1) killing some animals outright and 2) affecting reproduction rates due to sterility.
Thanks to Carson’s efforts, DDT was banned in 1972.
The Bald Eagle made a significant recovery and is now considered “an Endangered Species Act success story” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Join Us to Look for Bald Eagles
If you are in the North Carolina Piedmont, you can find the Bald Eagle along many sections of the Haw River.
Down near Raleigh, you can spot them during the spring. In April-June, Jordan Lake hosts the largest concentration of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states and is a popular bird-watching destination.
We also frequently spot them on Saxapahaw Lake during our various paddle trips, so if you are around during the warmer months, book a trip and ask one of our guides for tips on spotting these wonderful birds.