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Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus Scientific name definitions

David A. Buehler
Version: 2.0 — Published October 7, 2022
Revision Notes

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Introduction

Selected as the national emblem of the United States in 1782 by Congress, in spite of Benjamin Franklin's famously low opinion of the species, the Bald Eagle has long been an important symbol in North American cultures, both present and past, with feathers and body parts appearing regularly in prehistoric settlements of Native American peoples. The species has served as a symbol of freedom and democracy in the United States and, in recent decades, as a symbol of wilderness and the environmental ethic.

The Bald Eagle is a large fish-eagle with a dark brown body and a distinctive white head and tail acquired at 4 to 5 years of age. It is opportunistic forager, scavenging prey items when available, pirating food from other species when it can, and capturing its own prey when needed. It consumes a variety of vertebrate prey, but generally selects fish over other food types.

The species has undergone dramatic population fluctuations over the past two centuries. Reported as abundant in the 1700s and 1800s, the Bald Eagle was especially common in areas with large expanses of relatively shallow aquatic habitat, including Florida, Chesapeake Bay, Maine, the Maritime Provinces of Canada, the Great Lakes, and the Pacific Northwest from northern California to southern Alaska. It was so abundant in Alaska that a bounty of fifty cents was established in 1917 (increased to two dollars by 1949) to protect salmon stocks and fox farming from eagle depredation, with over 128,000 bounties paid before the practice was overruled by federal regulation in 1952. By the mid to late 1900s, the Bald Eagle was rare in the contiguous United States and southern Canada, its survival rate substantially reduced by human persecution and fecundity significantly reduced by pesticides, primarily DDT. The species was listed for protection by the United States under the Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940, and the southern subspecies was listed as Endangered in 1966 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act. The entire population in the contiguous United States was listed in 1978 under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Populations have increased dramatically since 1980 as DDT levels dropped and fecundity returned to pre-DDT levels across most of its range, and as human persecution decreased with increased environmental awareness. Recent models have estimated the population at 316,700 individuals and 71,400 occupied nests in the contiguous United States, and 58,000 adults along the Pacific Coast from southern British Columbia to the Alaska Peninsula. The Bald Eagle was removed from U.S. Endangered Species Act protection in 2007 and its population recovery is among the most successful conservation stories in North America.

Distribution of the Bald Eagle - Range Map
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  • Year-round
  • Migration
  • Breeding
  • Non-Breeding
Distribution of the Bald Eagle

Recommended Citation

Buehler, D. A. (2022). Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and S. G. Mlodinow, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.baleag.02