The symbolic Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a powerful and elegant bird that has been synonymous with the United States of America since it was adopted as their national bird in 1782. The Bald eagle is a compelling site with its unmistakable white head and tail, but how long do Bald eagles live?
Bald eagles live for around 20 to 30 years in the wild, which is about average amongst eagles in general. While they were once persecuted and hunted, adult Bald eagles today are protected by multiple laws in both the USA and Canada. Because of this, adult Bald eagles today face few threats and have low mortality rates. Even so, many Bald eagles are still directly or indirectly killed by humans.
The oldest known wild Bald eagle was killed by a collision with a car in upstate New York in 2015. Its leg band indicated that it was released into the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge in 1977, making it at least 38-years-old. The previous record for the longest-lived Bald eagle was around 36 years of age. Bald eagles can reach the age of 30 and above in the wild.
While many species of eagles have low first-year survival rates, Bald eagle chicks generally have an above-50% chance of surviving their first year. In some studies, they even have a 100% first-year survival rate.
Read on to learn more about the lifespan of this magnificent and symbolic bird!
Bald Eagles generally live for between 20 and 30 years in the wild
The average lifespan of Bald eagles has increased over the past 50 to 70 years. This once-persecuted bird is now protected by law in the USA and Canada - fines of over $20,000 are handed out to those who kill or trap Bald eagles unlawfully.
However, the unlawful shooting and trapping of Bald eagles is still a problem in some states and is hard to police.
Today, most Bald eagles live for at least 20 years, and first-year survival rates are higher than ever, meaning that most Bald eagle chicks live to see their first birthday. In addition, mortality rates as adults are quite low, meaning that most adult Bald eagles tend to live for the entire duration of their expected 20 to 30-year lifespan.
Nevertheless, many Bald eagles have their lives cut short by direct or indirect human activity. In fact, only a minority of adult Bald eagles die from natural causes; the remainder suffer from trauma, electrocution, poisoning, shooting and trapping. Of those that die from natural causes, starvation is the main cause, aside from old age.
Bald Eagle perched in a tree
If a Bald eagle survives its first year, it can comfortably live for 20 years. Their typical lifespan of around 25 years is common, but some Bald eagles will reach the age of 30 or over.
Decent survival data for Bald eagles is still relatively sparse, but in some regions, the chance of a Bald eagle surviving for 4 to 5 years was around 80% and higher. Once an adult, wild Bald eagles tend to live for 20 to 30 years.
Despite having no natural predators, Bald eagles still face many natural and unnatural threats. It may now be that their average life expectancy in the wild is beginning to increase.
Bald Eagle in flight, searching for prey
Few Bald eagles are kept in captivity - only those found injured, orphaned or otherwise unable to return to the wild are kept in zoos and rehabilitation centres.
One such injured Bald eagle, named Sequoia, was kept at Louisville Zoo until it died in 2021 at the age of at least 40. Sequoia was wounded and had to have his wing amputated, so he couldn’t be returned to the wild.
The oldest captive Bald eagle is reported to have lived until 47-years-old, but it’s unclear where it was kept, and the exact year it died.
Bald eagles are large, apex predators that have no predatory threats. Their 25-year average lifespan is well above average amongst all birds and is slightly higher than average compared to other eagles.
Adult Bald Eagle calling
The cause of death of Bald eagles has changed over the last 40 to 50 years. A study of 1,428 individuals from 1963 to 1984 found that 23% of eagles died of trauma, mainly from cars and vehicles, 22% from gunshot wounds, 11% from poisoning, 9% from electrocution, 5% from trapping, 8% from emaciation or starvation and 2% from disease.
The cause of death couldn’t be determined in around 20% of cases. What’s surprising here is that so few Bald eagles succumb to disease (just 2%).
In that same study, 68% of Bald eagle mortality was human-caused. However, the study was conducted some time ago and recent evidence is lacking.
Today, Bald eagles face fewer human threats, though illegal hunting is still a problem in some regions. Accidental poisoning is also a significant risk to adult Bald eagles, particularly when they eat poisoned carrion and consume lead bullets or other harmful synthetic toxins. Starvation is also a major cause of Bald eagle mortality today, especially during particularly cold, wet or windy winters.
More than 50% of Bald eagle chicks survive until adulthood, though nest predation by owls, bobcats, gulls, corvids, wolverines, owls, other eagles, hawks, bears and raccoons is still common. Whilst Bald eagles are no longer on the Endangered Species list, there are still only around 316,700 individuals in the wild.
Bald Eagle eating a fish
Bald eagles breed in around February to March. They build colossal nests - some weigh more than 2 tons, are 6m deep and 3m wide. Egg-laying takes course over around a week; female Bald eagles usually lay two eggs, rarely 3.
Incubation: Bald eagle incubation takes around 34 to 36 days on average. Both parents incubate the eggs. Once ready to hatch, Bald eagle chicks take a few days to break through the egg wall.
Nestling stage: Bald eagle chicks remain in the nest for at least two months and can gain weight at a remarkable 170g a day.
Bald Eagle feeding chicks in the nest
Fledging: The chicks are generally ready to fledge after 8 to 12 weeks but remain close to their parents for another 6 to 10 weeks. It’s rare for all the chicks to survive, but those who survive until fledging have around a 50% to near-100% chance of surviving their first year.
Juvenile stage: Bald eagle juveniles take 4 to 5 years to reach full sexual maturity. During this time, the lone eagle may explore the region or travel away from its parents to seek a mate.
Adulthood: Adult Bald eagles establish large territories, find a mate, and typically stay with them for life. They will attempt to breed each year, though may not always be successful. Over a lifetime, a pair of Bald eagles might rear around 20 to 30 chicks in total.
Juvenile Bald Eagles are often confused with Golden Eagles
It takes at least 2 to 3 years for a Bald eagle to develop its characteristic white head. Bald eagles have a long lifecycle and can take around five years to reach full sexual maturity.
Around 25% of juvenile Bald eagles develop white head plumage by the age of 4 ½, 100% of juveniles develop it by the age of 5 ½.
Fully-grown adult Bald eagles have no natural predators. Nest predation is not uncommon, and there are cases when other eagles, owls, and hawks kill young and juvenile eagles.
Bald eagle nests are predated by:
Close up of a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Currently, the oldest known wild Bald eagle was at least 38-years-old. It was killed by a collision in Henrietta, New York, in 2015 and was later identified as Eagle 629-03142. The eagle was banded after it hatched in the summer of 1977.
This eagle was taken from its Minnesotan nest and moved to New York’s Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge - Bald eagles were an endangered species at the time, and attempts to bolster their numbers were in full swing.
In captivity, Bald eagles have reportedly lived for up to 47 years, though the origin of this figure is unclear. In 2021, Louisville Zoo’s oldest Bald eagle named Sequoia died at the age of 40.
Bald Eagle in flight, coming in to land, Alaska
Bald eagles are opportunistic foragers that gorge themselves on meat whenever they can. Food can slowly digest in their crop for at least seven days, meaning that Bald eagles regularly fast for intermittent periods. Observations of Bald eagles fasting for over a month are not uncommon.
After around two weeks of not eating, Bald eagle body mass declines rapidly. Therefore, it would be exceptionally unlikely for a Bald eagle to survive for longer than 50 days or so without eating.
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