The iconic Bald eagle has been the national bird of the United States since 1782. A powerful and impressive bird with a snowy white-feathered head, Bald eagles are unmistakable creatures. Like most other eagles, Bald eagles are apex predators and sit right at the top of their natural food chain.
As such, these powerful birds have the pick of the bunch when it comes to feeding, so what do Bald eagles eat?
Bald eagles are carnivorous and eat mostly fish and other birds. Mammals make up a small percentage of their usual diet. Bald eagles have been studied to hunt and eat some 400 species, including some large animals like deer fawns. They’re opportunistic predators and will eat both living animals and carrion.
Bald Eagle with fish, captured from a lake.
Bald eagles have exceptionally good eyesight, which is some eight times more powerful than a human’s. Once it spots its prey from high above the ground, a Bald eagle can dive at speeds exceeding 100mph. Prey is ripped and torn apart by gigantic talons, the flesh devoured by the eagle’s powerful beak. By all accounts, Bald eagles are fearsome predators and are amongst the largest eagles in the world.
Read on to discover what Bald eagles eat and other interesting facts about the feeding habits of these awe-inspiring and iconic birds.
Bald eagles are opportunistic carnivorous predators and will hunt most animals that they can confidently target without risking harm to themselves. This includes carrion, which makes an ideal free meal that requires the Bald eagle to expend practically no energy.
Bald eagles are thought to consume some 400 species, consisting primarily of fish (over 50% of their diet on average), birds (25%+ of their diet on average) and mammals (15%+ of their diet on average), the remainder being other prey like lizards.
Bald Eagle swooping for a fish in Alaska
Bald eagles usually live in freshwater or coastal habitats, and thus, their staple meat is actually fish. Many are surprised to hear that Bald eagles have pescatarian tendencies - they especially love to hunt salmon, catfish and herrings, but will even eat crabs and other crustaceans. Fish are a relatively risk-free target and provide the high saturated fat content that eagles need to thrive.
Absolutely, but they prefer to target birds on the ground rather than in the sky. This makes waterfowl a prime target, but Bald eagles will hunt and eat any bird that presents a valid opportunity.
Profile shot of a bald eagle
Yes, and Bald eagles are generally shrewd enough to know what snakes they should or shouldn’t eat. It’d be quite rare for Bald eagles to choose snakes if there are other prey available, though.
Yes, bald eagles consume roadkill and carrion. They are opportunistic hunters and won’t pass up a free meal, regardless of whether it’s dead or alive. Bald eagles are also relatively lazy, which makes roadkill the ideal free meal.
A bald eagle eating a red fox
Bald eagles have been known to target cats and even small dogs, but this is exceptionally uncommon. Raccoons, squirrels, prairie dogs, rabbits, and hares are all much likelier mammalian prey for Bald eagles.
Absolutely, but whether or not a Bald eagle chooses to target a live animal depends on the risks and likelihood of success.
Bald eagles are shrewd and clever predators; they won’t enter a fight that they’re not almost guaranteed to win. Plus, larger animals will require more energy to kill and eat and may not be worth the energy expenditure.
Bald eagles rely more on surprising their live targets rather than beating them in a race, which requires more energy and effort. They will likely hunt live targets over open ground with fewer hiding places. This is what makes waterfowl and fish in open water a prime target.
Bald Eagle flying with a fish
Bald eagles are skilled hunters that can hover several thousand feet above their territories before swooping in at high speed and surprising their victim. They’re able to spot small movements at well over 1km or even 2km away.
However, Bald eagles are also well-known for their laziness and are often spotted stealing the prey of other animals. Roadkill is a firm favourite of the Bald eagle also as it’s basically a free meal. Bald eagles, like many other raptors, will try to avoid unnecessary energy expenditure when possible.
This is also why Benjamin Franklin was not a fan of the Bald eagle and allegedly wished for the American national bird to be changed to a turkey (later discredited as a myth) - he observed that Bald eagles were generally lazy, immoral hunters that relied on their thieving abilities rather than skill!
Bald Eagle preparing to dive for a fish, hovering high in the sky.
In winter, Bald eagles will lower their energy expenditure and focus primarily on scavenging than hunting. Roadkill is the wintering Bald eagle’s dream, as is the quarry of other predators which the Bald eagle will seek to thieve and steal. A Bald eagle isn’t exactly the kind of animal you’d try and confront and stop in that situation anyway.
Baby bald eagles are fed raw meat from day one. Their parents will tear them small parts of flesh and feed it directly to them. They don’t need to be weaned on regurgitated or soft foods like other birds.
Bald Eagle bringing back a carcass to feed young
Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, observed that Bald eagles were lazy and said; “For my own part, I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country.” He argued that Bald eagles would frequently perch on trees and watch the birds of prey hunt, and when they left their catch unattended, the Bald eagle would merely swoop in and steal their meal.
Benjamin Franklin then said then the turkey was a more respectable bird than the Bald Eagle, but did not suggest the turkey replace the Bald eagle as the American emblem as is often claimed. He remarked of the turkey; “He is besides, though a little vain & silly”.
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