a wingspan longer than seven feet, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus
leucocephalus) is a majestic and graceful bird of prey. A common
winter visitor to the Great Plains, bald eagle numbers first
declined in this region when market hunters destroyed the great
buffalo herds - and so too disappeared the carcasses on which
eagles fed - during the 1800s. The bald eagle has a
barrel-shaped body measuring 32- to 40-inches long. It's hooked
bill and legs are massive and yellow. Adult birds are dark brown
to black. Their distinctive white head and tail plumage develops
during their fourth or fifth year.
Immature birds are dark brown with mottled white wings and are often confused with golden eagles. Bald eagles feed primarily on fish, but they also eat rodents, other small mammals and carrion (dead and decaying flesh). When hunting, the great bird circles high in the sky, scanning the ground with its keen eyesight and swooping down suddenly to take its prey. The bald eagle is an efficient hunter whose sharp talons rarely miss their target. Because of their appetite for fish, bald eagles are often found near water. Oklahoma's large reservoirs and river systems are ideal eagle habitat, especially from mid-October through mid-March, when wintering eagles spread throughout the state. Mainly a winter resident, bald eagles arrive in mid-October and stay through mid-March. The birds are primarily found in the eastern and central areas of the state during this time, although some pairs have established permanent nest sites in the state. Bald eagles have a daredevil-like courtship, with 100-mph dives and plummeting somersaults.
After pairing, both eagles build a colossal nest as high as 70 feet off the ground in the fork of a tree or side of a cliff. Constructed of sticks, branches, foliage, and lined with a deep layer of finer material, the same nest is used and augmented year after year. As a result, it will often grow to enormous proportions. As early as October, the female lays a clutch of two eggs. Both parents share in the duties of incubating and feeding the chicks. The young hatch after 35 days, and three months later, when they can fly and hunt on their own, the adults drive the fledglings from the nest. With its fierce and independent demeanor, the bald eagle was chosen as our national emblem in 1782. Eagle populations have periodically fluctuated, with the most recent threat to the birds' survival being pesticides such as DDT. The pesticide found its way into the food chain in the 1950s and '60s, accumulating in the fish and animals that form the basis of the eagle's diet. The accumulation of the chemical in the eagles' bodies resulted in their eggs being paper-thin, which resulted in broken egg shells and no eaglets being hatched. Thanks to laws banning chemicals such as DDT, the bald eagle has made a dramatic recovery over the last 30 years. In fact, the comeback has been so spectacular that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the stately bird from the threatened species list on June 28, 2007, putting an exclamation point on one of America's most successful conservation stories. In 2007, 49 nesting pairs were found throughout the state. Evidence of this success is becoming more common each year, as more Oklahomans see this monarch patrolling the skies over our state's reservoirs.