It’s time again to view majestic American bald eagles along Pacific Northwest rivers, particularly the Skagit. The Skagit River hosts the largest wintering population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. Most of these eagles spend their summers in northern British Columbia and Alaska. In the late fall, they migrate to the Pacific Northwest to feed on spawned-out chum salmon carcasses and waterfowl.
Eagles feed along river gravel bars in the morning usually between 7 and 11. In the afternoon, it is common to see eagles perched on tree branches, resting for long periods of time. They seem to prefer well-spaced branches, heavy enough to accommodate their weight and large wing span.
For its size, the eagle is surprisingly light, yet it is very strong. The average adult bald eagle weighs nine pounds, with a height of three feet and a wing span of five- to seven-and-a-half feet. The bald eagle is strong enough to swoop down with incredible speed and carry away prey that weighs more than the bird does.
Bald eagle nests, which can weigh hundreds of pounds, are typically six feet wide and two to four feet tall. Nests are often located very high in tall trees with broken or deformed tops, with a view of the water. The nesting period in Washington begins around the last week of March to the first or second week of April. Although some eagles stay in the Upper Skagit River area, most find nesting sites around the shores of Puget Sound, San Juan Islands, or other coastal areas in Canada or Alaska.
Eagles are generally ready to mate at the age of five. It is believed that eagles mate for life. Females lay two to four eggs and the thirty-five day incubation duties are shared by both female and male.
Eaglets are fed by their parents for the first six to seven weeks and then sporadically while they learn to feed themselves. By the time young eagles emerge from the nest, they are almost as large as their parents.
The familiar coloring of white head and tail does not occur until the birds are four or five years of age. Juvenile birds are mostly brown and gray with varying amounts of white on the underside of their wings and back.
The word “bald” is simply an evolution of the Middle English “balled,” which meant “shining white.” Adult bald eagle plumage is characterized by a dark brown body with a bright white head and tail, yellowish beak and eyes.
Few animals, if any, can match eagles ability to see great distances. Generally, eagles can see distant objects three to four times better than humans.
The life span of an eagle in the wild is up to twenty years. The bald eagle was almost driven to extinction as the result of eggshell thinning caused by the pesticide DDT. After DDT was banned in the 1970s, the eagles, as well as other birds of prey, have made an amazing comeback. In 1995, the bald eagle status was upgraded in the lower 48 states from “endangered” to “threatened,” and in 1997 Department of the Interior took the American bald eagle off the endangered species list.
The bald eagle was chosen in 1782 as the emblem of the United States of America because of its long life, great strength and majestic looks. It’s an honor to view these birds and it is our duty to ensure their preservation by giving them the space, privacy and environment they need.