Life History of Bald Eagles

Bald Eagles have an interesting life history, from the time the eggs are laid until the time they are fledgling from their nest, finding food to survive, mating, starting the life cycle all over again.

The American Eagle Foundation (AEF) has a wealth of information on this subject in the “Educational Resources” of  the AEF web site, www.eagles.org.

–Bob Hatcher, editor

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About Bob Hatcher

Primary Blog Contributor, Eagles.org American Eagle Foundation
This entry was posted in General Info & School Reports, Life History, Biology, & Behavior, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Life History of Bald Eagles

  1. napalm says:

    do bald eagles have a second life.after 40 to 50 years do some of them smash there beeks off,tear there feathers off,rip there talens off?

    • Bob Hatcher says:

      It is myth that, after 40 – 50 years of age, eagles: smash off their beaks, tear their feathers off, nor do they rip their talons off. This is an often repeated legend that eagles have a second life. This and other factual and false eagle stories are included in the following article.

      Eagle Factual and Legendary Symbolisms
      Robert M. (Bob) Hatcher, American Eagle Foundation*

      Eagles are excellent symbols that can be used in talks and sermons. Eagles are
      mentioned in the Bible 30 times, often as a model for our lives, such as in Isaiah 40:31:
      “They shall mount up as with wings of eagles; they shall not be weary”. Eagles are likewise revered by most Native Americans.

      Since my retirement from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in 2001, I have served as an eagle consultant and correspondent with the American Eagle Foundation. This includes responses to numerous e-mail inquiries from: ministers, religious publications, and the public about valid and invalid eagle symbolisms that are commonly repeated, including the following:

      A. Valid Eagle Symbolisms

      1. Fact – U.S. National Symbol:
      The Bald Eagle was selected as our National Symbol on June 20, 1782 by the 2nd Continental Congress. As with the Bible and Native Americans, our National Symbol represents: virtue, purity, innocence, power, bravery, justice, and perseverance.

      2. Fact – Fidelity of Mates: Eagles mate for life. They re-mate only after
      losing a mate, provided a replacement is available.

      3. Fact – Sharing of Duties with Mates:
      Mated Bald Eagles each contribute to nest building.
      After the female lays one to three eggs, the male and female
      take turns sitting on the eggs for the 35-day incubation period. After the
      eaglets hatch in approximately March, the parents take turn in staying with
      them in the nest in order to help keep them warm and to guard against
      predators. Only after the young reach approximately five weeks of age, do
      the parents begin to leave the young unattended for short periods of time.

      4. Fact – Young Learn to Cooperate:
      We have raised three eaglets at a time in hack cages from about 6 weeks of age to about 12 – 13 weeks of age, when they are normally able to fly for the first time. As the eaglets grow , there is a need to practice flying in place inside the cage in order to adequately strengthen their wings for flying after release. By the time the eagles are
      ready for release, they already have a fully adult size, with a wing span of
      6.5 to 7.5 feet. Since the cage is typically 8x8x8 feet in size, the growing
      eaglets soon learn that they need to cooperate by taking turns in flapping
      their wings and flying in place inside the cage. To do otherwise would
      result in a chaos of wings striking against each other, causing injury, with
      little strengthening of wings achieved. Likewise, we need to learn to cooperate with others in the “close quarters” of life’s activities.

      5. Fact – Young Learn to be Independent:
      When we work with eaglets, it is important that they don’t detect humans as the source of their food. This is done with young nestlings by feeding them by use of an eagle puppet, designed to look like an eagle parent. Older eaglets are fed in a hack cage
      by placement of food a drawer which delivers the food through a solid wall
      to the eaglets. If eaglets associate their food with a human source, they
      often will not learn to find food in the wild, while starving, waiting for a
      hand-out from humans. Likewise, we need for our human youth to learn to
      “fish for themselves”, rather than forever depending on other humans for
      their sustenance.

      6. Fact – Notorious Wanderers as Juveniles, But…:
      Eagles become sexually mature at four to five years of age. As juveniles, they have been described as, “notorious wanderers”, as they seemingly wander aimlessly over many
      states. When they become sexually mature, they tend to return to the
      general area of their first flights to nest That’s the principle behind our
      imprinting eaglets – to future home territories before releasing them from hack cages when first capable of flight. Likewise, human youth who are properly reared
      by loving and caring parents tend to return to their early teachings, even
      if they may “roam” during their youth.

      B. Common Eagle Myths and Legends

      Many other eagle stories are not to be interpreted literally, but as symbolic stories, metaphors, or allegories. Many of these factual stories and legends have been told and retold by well-meaning persons who are usually making good points, but often not based on actual eagle behavior. Some are commonly spread as E-mail in recent years. Eagle facts and legends even appear in church literature and sermons, often portraying legends as fact.

      1. Myth – Eagle Renewal at Mid-Life.
      Eagles are sometimes stated to renew themselves physically and behaviorally between mid-life and old age by losing their feathers and other body parts, such as their beak. Some of these stories go to state that the “refreshed” eagles may live to
      approximately 80 years. The longest that any Bald Eagle has been known to
      live in the wild is 39 years. They have been known to live well beyond 50
      years in captivity, where the hazards are less and medical care is usually
      available. Eagles do not provide special renewal of their beaks, claws nor
      feathers – at or after mid-life, but we can indeed renew and refreshen our lives in our mid-lives.

      2. Myth – How Eagles Learn to Fly:
      Well-meaning persons sometimes either misinterpret Biblical verses or interpret them too literally. One such verse is Deuteronomy 32:11-12, which states (RSV), “Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings,
      catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone did lead him, and
      there was no foreign god with him.” Eagles cannot fly until about 12
      weeks of age. During the last few weeks that eaglets are in the nest, they
      increasingly exercise their wings. This includes very briefly flying in
      place a few feet above the nest as they approach their fledging age.
      Finally, they gather enough strength and courage to fly on their own
      initiative from the nest, usually to a nearby tree. Since they have no
      experience at flying and landing, they often are quite awkward during
      initial landings, but learn fast with experience. I have personally
      observed many of those first flights without the benefit of aid from an adult eagle. However, we, as humans, can indeed teach our children to “fly” and hopefully “soar” (example of a metaphor).

      3. Myth – How Eagles Force Their Young From the Nest:
      As with the example above about “How Eagles Learn to Fly”, we should not interpret literally that eagles deliberately place sharp materials at the bottom of their nest and then remove the softer nest lining to encourage the young to leave the nest. When they complete their nest each year, they line the nest depression with soft materials. The softer lining will naturally settle, often dropping into the stick nests, during the 35 days of incubation and three months between hatching and fledging of young from the nest. Likewise, we all must learn to adjust to, and avoid when possible, the “sticking points” of our lives.

      4. Myth – Eagles Losing & Re-growing Wings Every Five Years.
      There is no truth to the statement that, “Every five years the eagle sheds its wings by
      plunging into the water and has to somehow survive without flying… then he
      gets his wings back.” We likewise need to occasionally “regrow our wings” so that we may “soar” to new heights of accomplishment.

      5. Myth – Eagles Die on a Rock Facing the Sun.
      When an eagle finally dies… he does not die on a rock – facing the sun”. I have seen one attempt at “catchy” re-phrasing of this legend as follows: “If you can find the “Rock” of Ages and lay on it and bathe in the “Son”… you too can be renewed like an eagle.” However, this is a good example of a metaphor with valid religious symbolism.

      6. Myth – How Eagles Weather Storms:
      There is an inspirational but biologically dubious poem, “Weathering the Storm” concerning how eagles can weather storms. Eagles typically soar on thermals. Such thermals represent heat radiating from the earth. We typically can see eagles and other birds of prey soaring on thermals after about 10 a.m. when the earth warms sufficiently from the sun’s rays to generate rising heat. We do not associate soaring birds with cold or cloudy weather over land, unless perhaps there is enough heat reserve on the earth’s surface to generate very temporary thermals. Eagles do not like to expend the extra energy of flapping their wings to fly for long periods of time and therefore utilize thermals on which to soar as much as feasible. When thermals are lacking, their daily flights during migration will be of shorter distances. Rain from storms would tend to cool the earth and soon substantially reduce heat necessary to generate thermals. However, I suspect that more experienced eagles could learn to avoid smaller storm cells by flying around them and thereby maintain their thermal support. Likewise, we need to learn how to rise up on the “thermals” that can support our lives if we let them. We too can learn to “soar” more efficiently, for the greater good of all.

      Conclusion: The message has greater credibility when the example is either based on fact, or if it is clear that it has symbolic meaning via metaphors, allegories, etc., and often therefore should not be interpreted literally. Eagles indeed symbolize many good characteristics, representing many Christian and cultural values.

      *American Eagle Foundation Web Site – http://www.eagles.org

    • Bob Hatcher says:

      Thanks for your question, “Do bald eagles have a second life after 40 to 50 years, etc. You are wise to have questioned its accuracy. Such eagle stories often make some good moral points, but the eagle-related information is essentially pure fiction.

      Eagles are valid symbols for many good causes. I have used eagle symbolism many times in various versions of a speech entitled, “Rise Up on the Wings of Eagles”. This includes sermons in two or three Christian churches. However, some people often use eagle symbolism inaccurately in an attempt to illustrate good points. These myths are often read and retold to others by well-meaning persons. Such persons may well be making excellent and useful points, but their illustrations would be based on inaccurate reports of eagle biology and behavior. The unfortunate downfall of these false illustrations is they may ultimately diminish the credibility of both the messenger and message. If such legends are used in making valid points, we recommend that the minister (or other messenger) make it clear that he/she is speaking just quoting the legend to make a point. This is often done with allegories, whereby one or more elements of a story stand for a hidden truth.

      One of the most common eagle fables concerns eagles’ losing various body parts at mid-life in order to renew themselves. Eagles are sometimes stated to renew themselves physically and behaviorally between mid-life and old age by losing their feathers and other body parts, such as their beak. Some of these stories go to state that the “refreshed” eagles may live to approximately 80 years. The longest that any Bald Eagle has been documented to live in the wild is 29 years. They have been known to live well beyond 50 years in captivity, where the hazards are less and medical care is usually available. Eagles do not provide special renewal of their beaks, claws nor feathers at or after mid-life.

  2. Marie Barnes says:

    Thank you for clearing up the “myth” about the mid-life crisis of the eagle (tearing out talons and feathers). I had been sent this story as a true fact and I am guilty of repeating it in many of my programs. Thank you for your wisdom about this beautiful bird.
    Marieharpist@belovedharp.com

  3. Fintan Cummings says:

    I have enjoyed watching the three eaglets. Now that they have been moved, will we be able to watch them from their new home?

    Will Franklin and Independence mate again this year?

    • Bob Hatcher says:

      The three eaglets have “graduated” from their captive-breeding environment with their non-releasable parents, Independence and Franklin. On June 22, 2012, they were transferred to the American Eagle Foundation’s hack site on Douglas Lake, where they can become oriented to natural bald eagle habitat. They will be released from the hack site when they are first capable of flight at about 13 weeks age.

      There won’t be a live eagle cam at their hack site. However, a video is planned for their release on approximately August 6, 2012. The video will then be available on AEF’s YouTube section at http://www.eagles.org.

      Bald eagles tend to return to nest, after about five years old, within about 75 miles of where they have learned to fly. However, since juvenile bald eagles wander over several states, they sometimes find a mate from another state as they approach sexual maturity. When they have each learned to fly in different parts of the country, they then must compromise concerning where their permanent nest will be located. Tennessee-hacked eagles have therefore been documented to nest as far north as northern Ohio near Lake Erie.

      Independence and Franklin have had an awesome captive-breeding record at Dollywood. From 2002 through 2012, they have laid 27 eggs and produced 27 young that have been transferred to the Douglas Lake hack site for release into the wild when old enough to fledge. We can look forward to their next eggs and young on the live eagle cam, beginning late March to mid-April, 2013.

  4. Susie/Lil' Munchkins Childcare says:

    Thank you so much for this information.

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  6. LauraS says:

    Thank you for providing information about the myth of an eagle renewing it’s strength. A well meaning person gave me an encouraging word about 5 years ago and I have been trying to understand whether it was accurate. I know that the Lord was speaking to me through the allegory and I have shared it with others. Now I know the biological facts and can properly distinguish allegory from fact.

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