Haliaeetus leucocephalus Photo Fiona Sunquist ©
Florida has the largest bald eagle population in the lower 48 states.
Easily identified by their white heads, distinctive size and soaring flight, bald eagles are often seen flying above Florida’s lakes, estuaries and wetlands. Adults have a white head and tail, chocolate colored plumage, and yellow bill and feet. The characteristic white head and tail develops when the bird becomes sexually mature at about 5 years of age.
Prime nesting habitat consists of tall trees near water. The exception to this general rule occurs in the Florida Keys where bald eagles nest in mangroves and even occasionally on the ground.
Bald eagles feed mainly on fish snatched from the water’s surface with talons, but also take wading birds, small mammals, and carrion. You may occasionally seen them feeding on a road kill with a group of vultures.
Most bald eagles migrate, but some stay in their territories year around. Males and females form life-long bonds. Pairs return to the same breeding territory year after year – usually in late September or early October in Florida - and will reuse the same nest if the site is still there.
Bald eagles were once common in Florida, more than a thousand nesting pairs are thought to have lived along the states coasts and inland waterways. But in the 1960’s the species was almost completely eliminated from the lower 48 states - a combination of habitat loss and pesticide use reduced the total US population to only about 500 pairs. When the use of DDT was banned in 1972, numbers began a steady increase. In 40 years the bald eagle has gone from 400 breeding pairs in the contiguous US (excluding Alaska), to more than 5,000 breeding pairs today.
During Florida’s 2004 bald eagle survey, biologists identified 1,139 active breeding territories. Florida’s nesting eagles currently produce about 1,500 chicks a year, and the state’s breeding eagle population constitutes more than 80 percent of the entire bald eagle population within the southeastern United States.
The four hurricanes that struck Florida in the summer of 2004 damaged or destroyed at least half of the state’s bald eagle nests. Bald eagles typically use the same nest for decades, adding sticks and nest material every year. If the nest blows down, the pair may rebuild, or they may skip a nesting season.
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