Our Bald Eagle: Literally the Biggest, Baddest Bird in North America
Author’s note: At the start of winter in 2012, I drove past a cornfield just outside Rensselaer and spotted a large bird sitting in the empty, frosted rows. I did a double-take and slammed on the brakes, pulling to the side of the road.
The large bird in the snowy field was a bald eagle. Its brilliant white head was the size of a teenager’s fist. The head bobbed up, staring around and then darted back down, plunging its beak into lunch. It was the first time I had ever seen a bald eagle in Indiana. Seeing it was…pretty cool.
The largest raptor in North America, the bald eagle is a magnificent animal both as a familiar symbol of the United States and as a species in its own right. Once upon a time its numbers fell dangerously low because of hunting, habitat loss and the use of DDT, but once again it is flourishing in the United States. AND in Indiana.
Many bird species have fairly little sexual dimorphism (physiological differences between male and female), but not the bald eagle. Although there is no difference in colors or plumage Between the sexes, female bald eagles are typically 25% larger than males.
Typically bald eagles reside near lakes or rivers, but it is an opportunistic feeder: if you’d like to imagine its place on the food chain, just think of any animal smaller than the bald eagle, all going into its beak. It will steal, scavenge and hunt anything it can lift. Sadly, this sometimes includes house cats and small dogs (but never a child, contrary to an Alaskan myth).
The bald eagles of North America vary greatly in size depending on territory and availability of food. The largest are those in Alaska: female raptors have been weighed at over 15 pounds, with a wingspan of more than 8 feet!
Bald eagle often mate for life and nests are built in tandem by both males and females. Nests are often used year after year, placed among tall trees near bodies of water, typically one or two miles from human activity. Researchers have discovered nests over 10 feet in diameter.
Young bald eagles, or eaglets, grow faster than any North American bird, putting on a pound of weight every 2-3 days. They can fly at 8-14 weeks and will stay with their parents until approximately 20 weeks old. For the next four years, they basically survive and eat until reaching sexual maturity.
Bald eagles live about 20 years in the wild, although the oldest captive bald eagle lived 50 years. The oldest bald eagle in Indiana, named C14 after his identifying band, is almost 29 years old and resides at the Indiana Raptor Center. After being discovered near starvation with a dislocated shoulder, staff nursed him back to health, but decided a return to the wild would be too risky.
Bald eagles cannot be kept as pets in the United States or for falconry, as is allowed in Canada and England. Educational and rehabilitative institutes can apply for permits to care for injured bald eagles, but no healthy specimens can be kept in captivity in the United States.
The bald eagle was an important symbol in North America even before the United States existed. Native American tribes have considered it a sacred animal for centuries. The National Eagle Repository collects and distributes deceased bald eagles to tribes for traditional ceremonies.
The Founding Fathers adopted the bald eagle in 1782 as an official symbol of the United States because it was a popular symbol used by the Roman Republic, the last republic to exist on Earth…until the United States came along and placed it squarely on the Great Seal.