- Size: 31” long with 80” wingspan.
- Color: white head and tail, black or brown body, with a yellow bill, legs and talons (clawed feet); immature with mottled blackish and gray feathers.
- Habitat: coasts, rivers, and large lakes in open areas.
- When and where to observe: best in the winter, especially along the Hudson River near Croton-on-Hudson.
We couldn’t believe it. Soaring low along Cross Bay Boulevard was the largest bird we’ve seen in some time. Too big to be a vulture or an osprey – and with the wrong coloring – it was an immature Bald Eagle! Though one had not been reported in the area that day, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge staff confirmed that from time to time, our national bird stops over for a visit.
The Bald Eagle, at least in its adult plumage, is perhaps the most recognized and easily identifiable bird even for non-birders, with its strongly hooked yellow bill, white head and tail contrasting with black or brown feathers on the body, plus yellow legs and talons (clawed feet). Adults measure 28-38” long, with an impressive 80” wingspan. Our national emblem since 1782, we have become familiar with this species since childhood, and over the last several decades learned about its struggle to survive.
Breeding along coasts, rivers, and large lakes in open areas, monogamous pairs use tall trees as the foundation to support their large nests created with sticks, vegetation and various other materials. Here they raise one brood each year consisting of 1-3 bluish white eggs, measuring about 3” long, which both males and females incubate for 34-36 days.
Chicks called eaglets are somewhat dependent on their parents for food and warmth, but are able to fly in 70-98 days. While parents’ coloring is striking, immature Bald Eagles are far more subdued with mottled blackish and gray feathers, yellow talons and dark bills.
Though their diet is primarily fish, bald eagles eat small mammals, waterfowl, seabirds and carrion. Their winter range extends southward into Mexico, but they are frequently seen along the Hudson River at the same time of year. They winter south to parts of Mexico, but also here in New York. Watch for these large birds with their characteristic stiff, shallow and weak, chirping whistles at various spots along the Hudson – check out the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s helpful web page listed in References (George’s Island Park on a cold winter day has often been very productive!).
Being at the top of the food chain, Bald Eagles were hard hit by the use of pesticides like DDT from the 1940s through the 1960s, which killed birds and thinned eggshells. But thanks to the elimination of this pesticide and legal protections, our national symbol was removed from the Endangered Species List in 1997.
- All About Birds: Bald Eagle by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, accessed on 2/16/09 at: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Bald_Eagle_dtl.html.
- Bald Eagle Soars Off Endangered Species List by Science Daily, June 28, 2007, accessed on 1/23/12 at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070628101017.htm.
- Bald Eagles of the Hudson River by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, accessed on 2/16/09 at: http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/9382.html.
- The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye, published in 1988 by Simon and Schuster.
- The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior edited by Chris Elphick, John B. Dunning, Jr., and David Allen Sibley, published 2001 by Chanticleer Press.
- The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley, published 2000 by Chanticleer Press.
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