I think it would be safe to say that most people know what a Bald Eagle looks like without ever having seen one in the wild. They have large white heads with a bright yellow bill and a large white tail you can see in flight. Advanced birders will often hear a Bald Eagle before they see one, but their call doesn’t quite match their large and fierce appearance.
Their main call is a series of short, high-pitched whistles. Movies often use the hoarse, screaming call of a Red-tailed Hawk when showcasing large birds like a Bald Eagle, but don’t let those sound effects fool you. Once you learn the call of an eagle, it’s hard to mistake with any other bird. It’s a good way to know there is an eagle in the area and then you can use binoculars to locate them in the sky.
In addition to the potentially misleading call, Bald Eagles don’t always have their distinct white head and tail, and yellow bill and feet. When first born, eaglets are a light gray color with a dark bill and dark eye. As chicks get a little bit older they become a solid, dark brown. As they continue to mature into their first year, they start to show white mottling on the underside of the wings, and by their second year the white mottling extends to the breast. In year three, their feet are distinctly yellow, the head turns whitish with a dark stripe through the eye, and their bill begins to turn yellow. By year four, they look very similar to adult Bald Eagles, but still have some dark spots on the head. And by year five, Bald Eagles will have the white head and tail with yellow bill and feet we have come to know and love.
Perched or in flight, Bald Eagles might be mistaken for a Red-tailed Hawk or a Vulture, but there are a few ways to tell them apart. Bald Eagles are much larger than these other two species. When perched, look for a large head and long, hooked bill. When soaring, look for the very straight posture of the wings and the slow wingbeats. When you hear or see a Bald Eagle you will most likely be near a body of water as fish make up a big portion of their diet.
Unlike the Osprey that are excellent fishermen, Bald Eagles are better known for their ability to steal food from other birds, like the Osprey. Eagles will hunt for their own fish, mammals, and other bird species too, but are often seen harassing other birds for food. Bald Eagles will also eat dead animals or garbage. Now that you know a little more about the Bald Eagle, spend some time outside to see if you can hear or see one.
It is a good time of year to spot an eagle, so keep your eyes and ears open!