The bald eagle has experienced recovery as a result of DDT removal from most of its range. Their population in Washington is robust and the species will continue to be an important and thriving part of our state's natural diversity for the foreseeable future. The bald eagle is protected under 3 federal laws: the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Lacey Act.
Description and Range
Bald eagles are up to 3 feet long and have a wingspan ranging from 6 feet to 7.5 feet. Adults have a distinct white head and tail that contrasts with their dark brown body. They have a large, hooked yellow bill. An immature bald eagle may be confused for an adult golden eagle. The most striking difference involves the distribution of white coloration in the plumage.
Ecology and life history
Breeding habitat most commonly includes areas close to coastal areas, bays, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, or other bodies of water that reflect the general availability of primary food sources, such as fish, waterfowl, or seabirds.
Bald eagles nest in large trees, usually near marine shorelines, large lakes, or rivers. They prey on fish, waterfowl, and small mammals, or scavenge. Many birds that nest in Canada and Alaska migrate south to overwinter in Washington, concentrating on rivers with spawned-out salmon, especially chum.
Nests are usually constructed in large trees. Tree species used for nesting vary and may include conifers and hardwoods. Winter roosts are usually located in uneven-aged patches of trees in locations protected from wind and inclement weather.
Bald eagles generally first breed at about 5 to 6 years of age, and adults may not lay eggs every year. They commonly roost communally, especially in winter.
Bald eagles return to their breeding territories year after year and may repair and use the same nest for many successive years. They can also construct alternate nests within the territory. Territories also typically contain large perch trees
Bald eagles are well distributed in Washington, but the majority of the population is found west of the Cascade Range. Bald eagles are found in association with marine environments and nearly all major waterways, inland lakes, and reservoirs.
Bald eagles nest primarily along marine shorelines and major rivers of western and northeastern Washington. Nests are rare or absent from the Columbia Basin and southeastern Washington, but overwintering birds can be locally common.
For a range-wide map and conservation status of the bald eagle, check out NatureServe Explorer.
Sensitivity to climate change
Bald eagles may experience some sensitivity due to habitat and foraging requirements. Nest sites may be affected by altered disturbance regimes (e.g., fire and wind) while warmer temperatures and changes in precipitation could limit food availability and quality (i.e., salmon carcasses). However, bald eagles are opportunistic foragers and may be able to switch prey species.
Exposure to climate change
- Altered fire regimes
- High wind events
- Increased temperatures
- Changes in precipitation/Altered hydrology
- This species is considered "climate endangered" (i.e., projected to lose >50% of current global range by 2050) in the Audubon Birds and Climate Change Report, although they may be at less risk in Washington State. Warmer temperatures in Puget Sound could lead to reduced food quality (i.e., due to accelerated decomposition of salmon carcasses) and/or reduced abundance (i.e., due to higher flows washing away carcasses), and may result in prey switching.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for the management of bald eagles. The recovery of bald eagle populations across North America is one of the great species recovery success stories in the United States. When the species was first listed as Endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1978, the primary reason for its imperiled status was due to the effects of chemical contaminants and, to a lesser extent, habitat loss.
Protection measures allowed bald eagles to make an incredible recovery both within Washington as well as nationally, which led to its federal delisting in 2007. In 2016, WDFW recommended that the designation of sensitive status for bald eagles was no longer appropriate, and that the species be removed from Washington's list of endangered species. Subsequently, this action occurred but it did not remove protections intended to sustain the population; bald eagles continue to be protected under three federal acts: the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Lacey Act.
Kalasz, K. S. and J. B. Buchanan. 2016. Periodic status review for the Bald Eagle in Washington. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington. 18+iii pp.
Seavey, J. R. 2005. Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Pp 111-112 in T.R. Wahl, B. Tweit, and S.G. Mlodinow (eds.). Birds of Washington: status and distribution. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, OR. 436 pp.
Stinson, D. W., J. W. Watson, and K. R. McAllister. 2007. Washington State Status Report for the Bald Eagle. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia. 86 + viii pp.