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Photo: Bald Eagle

Graphic: What About Bald Eagles?

Graphic: Background Information

What is a bald eagle?
Bald eagles are raptors (predatory birds). Only two kinds of eagles live in North America, the golden eagle and bald eagle. Bald eagles migrate through the Columbia Basin; some winter along the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River. Others can be seen along the Yakima River. Most bald eagles that winter in Washington go on to Alaska or British Columbia to hatch their young. Bald eagles have played an important role in history. For example, the Egyptian hieroglyphic of an eagle is said to represent the free-soaring soul of man. The Phoenicians adapted the eagle symbol and used it for the letter "a." American Indians wore eagle feathers as badges of rank and courage. The bald eagle was incorporated into the national seal of the United States in 1782 by the Continental Congress, and the eagle was selected as our national bird, beating out the wild turkey.

Graphic: Shrub-Steppe Ecology Series Logo

What do bald eagles look like?
Mature bald eagles are 30 inches long and can have a 7-foot wingspan. Their heads are covered with white feathers; the rest of their body is brown feathers. The name bald eagle comes from the old English word "balde," meaning white-faced. An immature bald eagle has mottled brown plumage and doesn't get its white head and tail plumage until it is about 4 years old. The immature bald eagle is easily confused with the golden eagle.

Where do bald eagles live?
In 1996, scientists observed more than 40 bald eagles wintering along the Columbia River north of the Hanford town site. Thousands of northern bald eagles also live in Alaska and other parts of the Pacific Northwest as well as in the Great Lakes region and around Chesapeake Bay. Southern bald eagles live in Florida and along the Atlantic coastline. These raptors live near swamps, lakes, oceans, and rivers so they can be close to their primary food source. Fish make up 90% of a bald eagle's diet. Their sharp eyesight, strength, and sharp talons allow them to snatch a 4-pound fish out of the water. They also eat carrion and small mammals.
Bald eagles mate for life and build large nests in trees. In some places, they also may build nests along cliff faces. Eagles return to the same nest year after year. In the spring, the female lays two eggs, but both parents share incubating responsibilities for 35-38 days. Adult eagles hunt to provide food for the small eaglets. In about 12 weeks, the eaglets learn to fly.

Why are bald eagles a threatened or endangered species?
Bald eagles became a threatened/endangered species after World War II because of the increase in use of pesticides and pollution. When eagles eat contaminated fish, their eggs often fail to hatch, or the eggshells break because they are so thin. Today, more than 50,000 bald eagles exist in North America, partly as a result of their federal protection status and changes in pesticide use. Bald eagles are listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened in Washington State.

Graphic: Notes..."Science is constructed of facts as a house is of stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." Henri Poincare
Keep in mind this fact sheet is intended to be used only as background information to support your effort to encourage inquiry-based science, which parallels the way scientists uncover knowledge and solve problems.

Graphic: Suggested Activities...
Learn about the bald eagle.
The bald eagle is not the only species in the Columbia Basin that is rare, threatened, or endangered. You can obtain a list of all the animals and plants that are listed by contacting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington State Department of Ecology, The Nature Conservancy or the National Wildlife Federation. Once you have a list of the species, have students research and prepare a profile of a species.
Questions a Scientist might ask: What does the species look like? What kind of habitat does the species need to survive? How many are known to exist in the Columbia Basin? Is it a resident species, or does it migrate through the Columbia Basin? Are the number of individuals increasing, staying the same, or declining? Why might there be an increase or decrease in population size? What led to the listing of the species as threatened or endangered? Are there current activities being taken to improve the chance that the species will survive? What other species depend on it?
Observe bald eagles.
To see bald eagles outside of the Columbia Basin, visit the Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area. Contact the Nature Conservancy of Washington, 217 Pine Street, #1100, Seattle, WA 98101 (209) 343-4345 to find out when the visitors center is open. When you visit the Preserve, observe the eagles closely. What are they eating? What is the ratio of mature birds to immature birds? Do the adults all look alike? Locate one bird and observe it for an extended length of time. Can you identify it by any unique markings? Does it have a pattern to its activities? Does it make any sounds? Do other birds interact with it? How do they react when people get too close? Did you know that scientists and trained volunteers spend many hours identifying, counting, and mapping the location of species? This information is important because it helps scientists judge the health of habitat and can assist wildlife managers in making management decisions on how to protect the species.

Graphic: Using Community Resources...

  1. Write to the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society
    P.O. Box 1900, Richland, Washington 99352.
    Ask a member of their education committee to come to your classroom to talk about bald eagles and other birds that migrate to the Mid-Columbia Basin.
  2. Write or call McNary Wildlife Refuge
    P.O. Box 544, Burbank, Washington 99323, (509) 547-4942.
    Talk with the refuge manager about arranging a class field trip to the Burbank Slough or other natural area to observe birds.

Graphic: Ohter Resources...

  1. Shrub-Steppe Seasons: A Natural History of the Mid-Columbia Basin, Lee E. Rogers, 1995. Pacific Northwest Laboratory, Richland, Washington (available at the Consolidated Libraries, WSU Tri-Cities).
  2. Birds of the Tri-Cities and Vicinity, Howard R. Ennor, 1991. Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society, Richland, Washington.
  3. Petersons Guide to Western Birds, Roger Tory Peterson, 1990. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

Graphic: Web Sites...

  1. Conservation Science Institute -
  2. Raptor Center -
  3. National Audubon Society -
  4. Journey North - Bald Eagles -

Graphic: Acknowledgments...
Initial development and printing of this fact sheet was funded by an Eisenhower Grant to the Partnership for Arid Lands Stewardship. Written by: Nancy Sauer; Series Editor: Georganne O'Connor; Design: WinSome Design; Printing: Eagle Printing and Graphic Design; First Printing: December 1997; Web Development: WinSome Design.
Graphic: Shrub-Steppe Ecology Series


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