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Bald Eagle

Haliaeetus leucocephalus

They’re our national bird for a reason: huge hooked beak, enormous talons, broad wings, and a dominant ferocity that stops you in your tracks. Bald eagles soar above Philadelphia all year, and they raise their families here as well. Watch them and be impressed. 


Bald eagles are our largest bird of prey. Mature adults have the iconic white heads and tails, while juveniles are uniformly dark. They’ve got a wingspan of more than six feet and broad wings. When they’re soaring they can only be mistaken for turkey vultures. Check for the eagle’s bigger head. Eagles also hold their wings out straight and soar steadily. Turkey vultures, by contrast, hold their wings up in a shallow V and teeter a bit as they fly. 


You can see bald eagles fishing in most of our waterways, from the tidal Delaware River to our marshes and creeks. Bald eagles nest near water in tall trees that offer a commanding view of their territory. 


Bald eagles mostly eat fish, but they will take birds, other animals, and carrion. They hunt fish by grabbing them out of the water, but they also will steal fish from ospreys. 


Bald eagles nest in the tallest tree in the area and defend their territory against other eagles, sometimes fighting rivals to death. Nest building begins in the winter (just about when the football Eagles are eliminated from playoff contention), and they raise chicks into the spring. 

The only thing that isn’t majestic about them is their call, a high-pitched clucking (which is why most movies dub the much more impressive-sounding red-tailed hawk call over bald eagles). 

Bald Eagle History with Humans

Bald eagles, known to the Lenni Lenape as “òpalanie,” impressed our founding fathers enough to be chosen as our national symbol. Not everyone approved. John Bartram and Benjamin Franklin both noted that the bald eagle often steals fish caught by ospreys, indicating “bad moral character,” as Franklin put it

Centuries of people shooting them and then widespread use of the pesticide DDT after WWII drove them to near-extinction in the lower 48. DDT weakens bird egg shells, so that incubating parents end up crushing their own eggs. The banning of DDT in 1972 and active recovery efforts helped the bald eagle bounce back, and today they are a common sight in Philadelphia.

Observing Bald Eagles

Soaring bald eagles are a common sight along our rivers. You can often see them getting harassed by other birds, for example red-tailed hawks, with the smaller birds diving on the bald eagles as they escort them away from their nests. 

Watch eagles build and repair nests in winter, and then keep watching them into the spring as they incubate their eggs and raise their chicks. Well known nest sites include the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Pennypack on the Delaware, and Fort Mifflin. Keep your distance (about 300 yards), since too much close attention can lead eagles to abandon their nest. If the eagles are looking back at you, it’s time to back off. 

Although these huge birds can be observed with the naked eye, a pair of binoculars will help you admire them in detail. 

Living With Bald Eagles

Everything we do to improve our water quality helps the fish-eating bald eagles. Keep a respectful distance from nest sites, but otherwise enjoy watching them 

More Resources

Bald Eagle profile on All About Birds

PA Game Commission Bald Eagle profile. 

Join a Bird Philly bird walk and observe bald eagles with local birding experts.

Spotting Nesting Bald Eagles

Bald eagles are back in a big way. Learn about our national symbol how to observe these majestic predators. Thanks to our partners at Grid Magazine for producing the video and to the William Penn Foundation for their support. 

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