Are Bald Eagles Endangered? (Threats, Numbers + FAQs)

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) has been the national bird of the United States for well over two centuries and is one of the most recognizable birds on the globe.

Bald eagles have a large distribution, although they are found only in North America from Alaska, through Canada, the contiguous United States, and into northern Mexico.

Bald eagles are not endangered. Their population in the contiguous United States currently stands at over 300,000 individuals and their numbers continue to increase. Their status wasn’t always this secure, however. In fact, bald eagles had disappeared from much of the United States by the mid-1900s and were on the endangered species list until as recently as 2007. Their return highlights them as a true American conservation success story.

Bald eagles were very common before the arrival of Europeans in America. Settlers saw them as a threat to farming, trapping, and fishing, a belief that persisted well into the 20th century. The introduction of a pesticide known as DDT was probably the greatest cause of their decline, however.

Sadly, a combination of habitat loss, shooting, and poisoning brought their numbers to just 450 pairs or so in the Lower 48 by the late 1970s.

Read along as we learn about the bald eagle, a familiar bird that made a remarkable comeback.

Bald Eagle populations haven't always been secure - their return is a true American conservation success story

Bald Eagle populations haven't always been secure - their return is a true American conservation success story

Why did bald eagles go endangered?

Bald eagles were first added to the endangered species list in 1978. By that time, the American population had dropped to dangerous levels and serious action was needed to save America’s national bird.

Read on to learn what brought the bald eagle population to such low numbers.

Shooting

Bald eagles probably began to decline most rapidly in the 1800s. At the time, they were believed to be predators of livestock and thought of as nuisance animals. Bounties were in place until as late as 1953 in Alaska with no less than 120,195 individual eagles being shot. In that state, they were thought to be negatively affecting the salmon harvesting and fox farming industries.

Shooting was just as big of a threat to bald eagles in the south, however. According to the South Carolina Natural Resources Department, 62% of the dead eagles recovered between 1962 and 1965 were shot. Today this number has dropped below 20%.

Pesticides

The next major milestone in the decline of bald eagles was the introduction and widespread use of DDT in the 1940s. This insecticide was highly effective at controlling pests like mosquitos but it had some dire side effects for raptors like bald eagles.

As the chemical moved up the food chain, it accumulated in the eagles and caused them to lay eggs with weak shells. These eggs would break while the parents incubated them, causing the death of the developing chicks. Thankfully, the chemical was banned in 1972, although some traces of it still exist in the environment today.

Both shooting and pesticides were two of the main reasons why Bald Eagles became endangered

Both shooting and pesticides were two of the main reasons why Bald Eagles became endangered

What threats do bald eagles have?

Bald eagles have bounced back from the brink of extinction and are considered safe today. Nevertheless, these birds continue to face several threats. These include:

Habitat loss

Habitat loss is probably the single biggest threat to wildlife across the world. The expansion of industrial, urban, and suburban areas, as well as agricultural developments, reduces the available habitat for bald eagles.

Lead poisoning

Lead ammunition left in the carcasses of wild animals is a major cause of poisoning in wild bald eagles. Ingestion of this toxic heavy metal may be causing a 4-6% reduction in population growth in the Northeastern parts of the United States.

Other causes

  • Pollution from persistent organic chemicals
  • Electrocution and collisions with infrastructure
  • Illegal hunting, trapping, and poisoning
Bald Eagle in flight, amongst the snow in Alaska

Bald Eagle in flight, amongst the snow in Alaska

Bald eagle predators

Bald eagles also face natural threats like predation. Adult bald eagles are generally safe from predators unless sick or injured but their young are always vulnerable.

The following animals are known to feed on bald eagle eggs:

  • Black bears
  • Raccoons
  • Crows
  • Ravens
  • Magpies

These animals are known to prey on nestling bald eagles:

  • Raccoons
  • Black bears
  • Bobcats
  • Wolverines
  • Crows
  • Ravens
  • Owls
  • Hawks

Disease

Bald eagles are susceptible to a number of diseases, although a relatively low number of disease-related mortalities are recorded. Bald eagles are affected by the following conditions and infections:

  • Aspergillosis
  • Avian cholera
  • Enteritis
  • Hepatic necrosis
  • Myocardial infarction
  • Peritonitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Septicemia
Bald Eagle perched in a tree in British Columbia, Canada

Bald Eagle perched in a tree in British Columbia, Canada

How many bald eagles are in the wild?

Bald eagle numbers dropped to just 417 pairs in the contiguous United States in 1963. Thankfully, the species has recovered dramatically and as of early 2021, at least 316,000 bald eagles are believed to occur in the lower 48 states. The current population has increased quickly from 72,434 in 2009 - an incredible four-fold increase.

How rare is it to see a bald eagle?

Bald eagles are the most common eagles in the United States. These birds were once endangered but now occur in good numbers from northern Mexico right up to Alaska. Bald eagles are migratory across most of their range in the United States but they are breeding residents in some areas.

You can see bald eagles in various parts of the United States throughout the year, including Florida, the Pacific Northwest, and Parts of New England. Elsewhere, bald eagles are breeding visitors to the northern Great Lakes Region, and winter visitors elsewhere.

Juvenile Bald Eagles are often confused for Golden Eagles

Juvenile Bald Eagles are often confused for Golden Eagles

What state has most bald eagles?

Alaska has the most bald eagles of all the American states. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates the population at about 30,000 individuals. In the lower 48, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Florida stand out with the largest populations.

Read on to learn more about the bald eagle population in these American states.

Minnesota

Minnesota has a thriving bald eagle population. By 2005, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimated there were 1,312 active nests in the North Star state. This is an impressive increase from the 100 or so active nests in the early 1970s.

Florida

Florida is a hotspot for bald eagles. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there are approximately 1,500 breeding pairs in the Sunshine State.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin is a stronghold for American bald eagles. They are especially common in the north of the state although they are known to breed in 71 of the Badger State's 72 counties.

Bald Eagle catching a fish from the water

Bald Eagle catching a fish from the water

Is it illegal to kill a bald eagle?

Bald eagles are protected under federal law. Killing one of these beloved birds can result in a conviction and prison sentence or very hefty fines.

Bald eagles were first specifically protected under the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 and this act not only protects them from being killed but also from being, harmed, abused, sold, bought, or disturbed while nesting.

Their body parts (including feathers), eggs, and even nests are similarly protected. These eagles are also protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

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