Raptors are the apex predators of the avian community. Bird nobility, if you will, eclipsing their smaller cousins (and sometimes eating them). Most raptors are much larger than the average bird and create a thrilling spectacle when we are fortunate enough to observe them in flight or diving after prey. Except for the California condor, the bald eagle is the largest raptor found in the country. It has a most interesting history.
The bald eagle(Haliaeetus leucocephalus) has been the emblem bird of the United States since its inception in the eighteenth century, due to its impressive size and noble visage. It has been said that Benjamin Franklin favored the wild turkey but was overruled by others favoring the bald eagle. It was nearly extirpated during the mid-twentieth century in much of its range by the widespread use of DDT, a powerful insecticide, which caused developing eagle eggshells to be abnormally thin, resulting in the deaths of many eaglets even before hatching. Fortunately, the publication of Silent Spring by pioneering ecologist Rachael Carson, brought this near-tragedy to the attention of government entities and DDT was banned for domestic use. Since then, bald eagle populations have rebounded, and they can be found over nearly the entire continental United States, as well as Alaska and Canada, where they are abundant.
In recent years bald eagles have returned to the Central Arizona Highlands to nest. At least one breeding pair has been observed in the Lynx Lake area, and annual efforts are made to protect the birds and ensure breeding success by closing parts of the nearby trail during breeding and nesting times. The bald eagle nest is a huge structure of sticks and vegetation, situated in a sturdy tree or on a cliffside. Into the moss and grass-lined nest the female lays
one to three bluish-white eggs, which will incubate for 34-36 days. The hatchling eaglets are altricial (requiring constant care and feeding by the parent birds). Eagles eat fish, small mammals and sometimes carrion. Eaglets fledge ten to twelve weeks after hatching, so the adult birds are extremely busy during this time, providing enough food for their fast-growing young. It is understandable that the parent birds breed only once a year.
Juvenile bald eagles are different in appearance to the adults, being mostly dark with mottled feathers. The juvenile eagle goes through five different plumage changes before finally reaching its adult coloring at the age of five, when it displays the familiar white head and tail feathers and distinctive bright yellow beak. An adult bald eagle in flight is an impressive, easily recognizable sight, and a thrill to see. Ironically, it has a weak, wimpy cry, not at all consistent with its noble appearance. Well, even the eagle is not perfect.
It is currently bald eagle breeding/nesting season in the Central Arizona Highlands, and the trails near nesting sites are temporarily closed. So please protect our national bird by obeying posted signage, and keep your eyes peeled for a new generation of soaring eagles!
Contributed by HCNH Naturalist Sandy Stoecker