For the Birds Radio Program: Eagles in Winter

Original Air Date: Jan. 13, 1988

How can we see eagles when lakes are frozen?

Duration: 3′38″


(Recording of a Bald Eagle)

This year, Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count tallied a few Bald Eagles still in the harbor. With the late winter this year, Eagles may well still be migrating through Duluth. Their numbers usually peak at 20 to 25 a day over Hawk Ridge sometimes in late November or early December.

Cold temperatures are no threat to an eagle’s survival, as long as it has food. Of course, the Bald Eagle, unlike its distant relative the Golden Eagle, does very little hunting on land. A note in the current issue of The Passenger Pigeon, the journal of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, documents one Bald Eagle killing a crow on the wing and then eating it, and there are many records of eagles catching mice and small mammals, but they get most of their food by fishing. So naturally Bald Eagles can’t stick around once the water freezes. They do remain in the north near rivers, especially ones with dams. There are several places along the Wisconsin River and Mississippi where large numbers of eagles gather during even the coldest of winters, and Alaska and Canada count Bald Eagles among their winter residents.

Bald Eagles are excellent fishermen. Unlike Golden Eagles, Balds have no feathering on their legs. This may minimize drag when their feet drop into the water to pull up a fish. An eagle’s talons are muscular and sharp, and it has little difficulty carrying a fish weighing 20% of its weight. Males weigh 8 or 9 pounds, and females, which are much larger, weigh 10-14 pounds. One ornithologist tested an eagle’s weight-lifting ability in 1937. He anchored a 4 pound dead pickerel to an underwater rock weighing about 10 pounds. A female eagle managed to drag the fish with the rock about 20 feet along the bottom, , but couldn’t pull them out of the water. Then in June, 1969, an adult bald eagle was documented killing a 5 or 6 pound arctic loon. The eagle couldn’t pull the loon out of the water, so it swam with it to the nearest shore using its wings as paddles.

The name eagle comes from the Latin word aquilo, for the north wind, which darkened the sky. The word aquiline, describing a large, hooked nose like an eagle’s beak, has the same derivation.

Our eagle is said to be bald because its white head feathers reminded early settles of the naked head of a vulture. Oddly enough, “balled,” spelled b-a-l-l-e-d, in Middle English, meant shining white, so the name is appropriate either way.

Benjamin Franklin was familiar with the eagle’s habit of robbing Ospreys of their fish, and deplored the choice of the eagle as the national emblem–terming it a bird of “bad moral character.” But the eagle inspires a sense of majesty in most people who see it. Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote of it:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands,

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls,

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.

But despite the Bald Eagle’s regal appearance, its call is anything but majestic.

(Recording of a Bald Eagle)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”