What Do Bald Eagles Eat and How They Hunt

March 9, 2023 // 15 minute read

Bird Informer is independent: we research, test, and rate the top products to help you make the right buying choice. We sometimes use affiliate links and may receive a small commission on your purchase at no added cost to you. Learn more...

Bald Eagle Diet

Understanding the bald eagle’s diet and hunting behavior is essential for bird watchers and conservationists who want to learn more about this magnificent bird. Knowing what bald eagles eat and how they hunt can provide valuable insights into their behavior, ecology, and habitat requirements and can help inform efforts to protect and conserve this iconic species.

In this article, we will talk about:

  • What Do Bald Eagles Eat?
  • How Do Bald Eagles Hunt?
  • The Role of Carrion in the Bald Eagle’s Diet
  • Threats to the Bald Eagle’s Diet
  • And more…

Keep reading to learn more about these great birds…

For bird watchers…

Understanding the bald eagle’s diet and hunting behavior can help them identify and locate the birds in the wild. For example, knowing that bald eagles primarily feed on fish can help bird watchers know where to look for them, such as near lakes, rivers, and coastlines. Similarly, knowing that bald eagles sometimes steal prey from other birds, such as ospreys and gulls, can help bird watchers recognize and interpret complex behaviors in the field.

For conservationists…

Understanding the bald eagle’s diet and hunting behavior is critical for developing effective management strategies to protect the species and its habitat. For example, knowing that bald eagles rely heavily on fish can inform efforts to protect and restore fish populations in degraded habitats. Similarly, understanding how bald eagles use different hunting techniques to catch different types of prey can help inform efforts to protect the prey species themselves, such as by managing invasive species or controlling hunting pressures.

A Brief Overview Of The Bald Eagle As A Predator And Hunter

Overall, understanding the bald eagle’s diet and hunting behavior is key to appreciating this magnificent bird and protecting its habitat and populations. By learning more about the bald eagle’s ecology, behavior, and role in its ecosystem, bird watchers and conservationists can help ensure that this iconic species continues to thrive for generations to come.

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a large bird of prey and a symbol of strength, freedom, and patriotism in North America. It is one of the most recognizable and iconic birds on the continent, with its distinctive white head and tail feathers, sharp talons, and powerful wingspan. Bald eagles are found throughout North America, from Alaska to Mexico, and are often associated with waterways and coastal areas, where they feed on fish, waterfowl, and other prey.

As a raptor, the bald eagle is a top predator in its ecosystem and plays a critical role in maintaining a healthy balance of species. Its hunting and feeding behavior is both fascinating and impressive, as it uses its sharp eyesight and powerful talons to catch and kill prey, including fish, birds, and mammals. The bald eagle’s iconic status in North America is due in part to its role as the national emblem of the United States, where it has been a symbol of freedom and strength since it was chosen as the national bird in 1782.

Despite its status as a national symbol and its ecological importance, the bald eagle was once an endangered species due to habitat loss, hunting, and other human activities. Thanks to conservation efforts, however, the bald eagle has made a remarkable recovery in recent decades and is no longer considered endangered. Today, the bald eagle remains a beloved and iconic bird, admired by bird watchers and nature enthusiasts alike for its beauty, strength, and grace.

What Do Bald Eagles Eat?

Prey SpeciesDescription
FishBald eagles are well-known for their fishing abilities and often catch fish such as salmon, trout, and herring. They can also steal fish from other birds such as ospreys or catch fish that are already dead.
WaterfowlBald eagles will sometimes catch and eat ducks, geese, and other waterfowl. They typically target young or injured birds that are easier to catch when waterfowl hunting.
Small mammalsBald eagles will occasionally eat small mammals such as rabbits, squirrels, and muskrats. They may also scavenge carrion from roadkill or other sources.
Birds of preyAlthough bald eagles are apex predators, they will sometimes prey on other birds of prey such as owls, hawks, and falcons. This may occur if the other bird is weakened or vulnerable.
ReptilesBald eagles will sometimes eat reptiles such as turtles or snakes. They may also scavenge dead reptiles or eggs from nests.
CrustaceansBald eagles have been known to eat crustaceans such as crabs and crayfish. They may scavenge these animals from the shoreline or catch them in shallow water.

It’s worth noting that bald eagles are opportunistic feeders and will eat whatever prey is available in their environment. The specific diet of a bald eagle may vary depending on factors such as location, time of year, and prey availability.

The relative importance of different food sources for bald eagles can vary depending on a number of factors, including geography and season. Here are some key considerations:

Geography:

  • Coastal areas with abundant fish populations are especially important for bald eagles. Bald eagles in these areas may rely heavily on fish for their diet, with species such as salmon and herring being particularly important.
  • Inland areas with waterways or lakes may also provide a significant source of fish for bald eagles, but these birds may need to diversify their diet to include other prey when fish populations are lower.
  • In areas with large populations of waterfowl or small mammals, these prey species may be more important for bald eagles.

Season:

  • Bald eagles may have different food preferences and availability depending on the season. For example, in the winter when bodies of water freeze over, bald eagles may rely more heavily on land-based prey such as small mammals or carrion.
  • During the breeding season, bald eagles may prioritize food sources that are high in protein, such as fish, to support the growth and development of their young.
  • During migration, bald eagles may seek out areas with abundant food sources to fuel their long-distance journeys.

Overall, while fish is often seen as a key prey item for bald eagles, the relative importance of different food sources can vary depending on the specific habitat and season. Bald eagles are adaptable and can switch to different prey when their primary food sources become scarce. This flexibility helps them survive in a range of environments, from coastal regions to inland forests.

How Do Bald Eagles Hunt?

Bald eagles are skilled predators with several adaptations that enable them to hunt effectively. Here are some key aspects of their hunting behavior:

Eyesight

Bald eagles have excellent eyesight, which is estimated to be four to eight times sharper than that of humans. Their eyes are specially adapted for hunting and are able to detect prey from a great distance.

Bald eagles can see both forward and to the side, allowing them to spot prey while in flight or perched in a tree.

They are also able to see in both bright and low light conditions, which allows them to hunt at different times of the day.

Talons

Bald eagles have strong, curved talons that are used to grasp and immobilize prey. Their talons are capable of exerting up to 400 pounds of pressure per square inch.

Once they have caught their prey, bald eagles use their talons to carry it back to their perch or nest.

Aerial acrobatics

Bald eagles are skilled fliers and are able to maneuver in the air with great agility. They can fly at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour and may perform aerial acrobatics such as dives and rolls to catch their prey.

When hunting fish, bald eagles may fly low over the water and use their talons to grab the fish as they surface.

When hunting other prey, bald eagles may circle above their target and then dive down at high speed to catch it.

Overall, bald eagles are powerful and skilled predators that use a combination of impressive eyesight, strong talons, and aerial acrobatics to hunt effectively. Their hunting behavior is a testament to their adaptability and their ability to thrive in a range of environments.

Below is a table that summarizes a Bald Eagle’s hunting techniques based on the types of prey:

FishBald eagles are well-known for their ability to catch fish. To do this, they may perch near a body of water and watch for fish near the surface. When they spot a fish, they may fly low over the water and use their powerful talons to grab the fish as it surfaces. Alternatively, they may dive from the air and hit the water at high speed to catch the fish.
WaterfowlWhen hunting waterfowl, bald eagles may use a stalking approach. They may perch near a body of water and wait for a duck or goose to swim within range. Once they are in range, they may fly low over the water and use their talons to grab the bird. Bald eagles may also catch waterfowl in mid-air by diving down from above.
Small mammalsWhen hunting small mammals such as rabbits or squirrels, bald eagles may use a perch-and-pounce approach. They may perch in a tree and watch for the mammal to move within range. Once the mammal is within range, the eagle may swoop down and use its talons to grab it.
Birds of preyAlthough bald eagles are apex predators, they may steal prey from other birds of prey such as ospreys, hawks, or falcons. This behavior is known as kleptoparasitism. To steal prey, bald eagles may harass the other bird until it drops its catch, or they may chase the other bird until it abandons the catch.

The Role of Carrion in the Bald Eagle’s Diet

Carrion, or dead animals, can be an important part of the bald eagle’s diet and can help sustain the bird during lean times. Here are some key reasons why carrion is important:

  1. Reliable source of food: Carrion can be a reliable source of food for bald eagles, especially during times when other prey is scarce. This is because carrion is always available, regardless of the time of day or year.
  2. Energy-efficient: Scavenging carrion can be an energy-efficient way for bald eagles to obtain food. It requires less energy than actively hunting and catching live prey, which can be important during times when the bird needs to conserve energy.
  3. Nutrient-rich: Carrion can be a nutrient-rich food source for bald eagles. This is because it often contains high levels of protein and other essential nutrients that the bird needs to survive and thrive.
  4. Competition avoidance: By scavenging carrion, bald eagles can avoid competition with other predators that may be hunting live prey. This can be especially important in areas where there are many other predators, such as wolves or coyotes.

During lean times, such as in the winter when prey may be scarce, carrion can be an important food source for bald eagles. Scavenging carrion allows the birds to obtain the nutrients they need to survive without expending too much energy. This can help ensure their survival during difficult times and allows them to thrive in a range of environments, from coastal regions to inland forests.

While carrion plays an important part in the diet of a Bald Eagle, it does not mean that these Eagles are total scavengers. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

  • Bald eagles are not just scavengers: While it is true that bald eagles will scavenge carrion, they are also active hunters that prey on a variety of live animals, including fish, waterfowl, small mammals, and birds of prey.
  • Scavenging is a natural behavior: Scavenging is a natural behavior for many predators, including bald eagles. In fact, scavenging carrion can be an important part of their diet, especially during lean times.
  • Bald eagles play an important ecological role: As scavengers, bald eagles play an important ecological role in cleaning up dead animals. By consuming carrion, they help prevent the spread of disease and can help to recycle nutrients back into the ecosystem.
  • Carrion is a valuable food source: Carrion can be a valuable food source for many different species, including bald eagles. By scavenging carrion, bald eagles are able to obtain the nutrients they need to survive and thrive.

While it is true that bald eagles will scavenge carrion, this is just one aspect of their eating behavior. They are also active hunters and play an important ecological role in cleaning up dead animals. And, consuming carrion, they help to keep the ecosystem healthy and functioning properly. 

Threats to the Bald Eagle Diet

Over the years, the bald eagle’s food sources have come under threat from a variety of factors, including:

Habitat loss

As human populations expand and development occurs, the bald eagle’s habitat is increasingly being destroyed or altered. This can impact the availability of prey species, such as fish or small mammals, which can in turn impact the bald eagle’s ability to find enough food.

Pollution

Pollution can affect both the prey species and the bald eagle itself. For example, pollution in waterways can impact fish populations, making it more difficult for bald eagles to find food. Pollution can also impact the health of bald eagles, which can make it more difficult for them to hunt or reproduce.

Overfishing

Overfishing has become a serious current threat and it can deplete fish populations, which can impact bald eagles that rely on fish as a primary food source. If there are fewer fish available, bald eagles may need to switch to other, less-preferred prey species, which can impact their overall health and well-being.

Climate change

Climate change is impacting the bald eagle’s food sources in a number of ways. For example, rising temperatures can impact the availability of fish, which can impact bald eagles that rely on fish as a primary food source. Changes in weather patterns can also impact the availability of other prey species, such as small mammals or waterfowl.

These Threats Impact Other Species As Well

The threats to the bald eagle’s food sources can impact not only the bald eagle, but also other species in the ecosystem. Here are some ways in which these threats can have broader impacts:

The bald eagle is a top predator in many ecosystems, and changes to its food sources can impact the entire food web. For example, if fish populations are depleted due to overfishing or pollution, this can impact not only bald eagles, but also other predators that rely on fish as a primary food source.

Another point to consider is when a top predator like the bald eagle is impacted, this can have cascading effects on other species in the ecosystem. For example, if bald eagles are unable to find enough food, this can impact their ability to reproduce, which can in turn impact the populations of other species that depend on bald eagles for food, such as scavengers that feed on bald eagle carrion.

Additionally, ecosystems provide a wide range of services that are important for human well-being, such as clean water, air, and soil. Changes to the ecosystem due to threats to the bald eagle’s food sources can impact these services, which can have negative impacts on human health and well-being.

It is important to address the threats to the bald eagle’s food sources in order to protect the health and well-being of the entire ecosystem, including other species and humans. By taking action to reduce pollution, protect habitat, and manage fisheries sustainably, we can help ensure that the ecosystem remains healthy and functioning properly. This is not only important for the survival of individual species like the bald eagle, but also for the overall health of the planet and the well-being of human societies that depend on these ecosystems.

In Conclusion

The bald eagle’s diet is diverse and includes fish, waterfowl, small mammals, birds of prey, reptiles, and crustaceans. Bald eagles are skilled predators that use their impressive eyesight, powerful talons, and aerial acrobatics to catch their prey. They are also known to scavenge carrion, which can be an important food source during lean times. 

I strongly encourage readers to continue learning about the bald eagle and to support efforts to protect this majestic and iconic species and its habitat. By understanding the bald eagle’s diet and hunting behavior, we can better appreciate its role in the ecosystem and take action to protect it from threats such as habitat loss, pollution, overfishing, and climate change.

There are many ways to get involved in conservation efforts, such as supporting organizations that work to protect wildlife and their habitats, reducing our own impact on the environment, and advocating for policies that promote conservation and sustainability. By working together, we can help ensure that the bald eagle and other species continue to thrive for generations to come.

  • Save
Subscribe to Newsletter

DISCLAIMER

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. Bird Informer also participates in affiliate programs with Clickbank and other sites. Bird Informer is compensated for referring traffic and business to these companies.

0 Shares