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Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada

The Bald Eagle - One of Our Largest Birds of Prey

A bald eagle sits amidst some trees, surveying the ocean.
It is quite common to see bald eagles in northern Cape Breton.
© Cape Breton Highlands National Park / J. Pleau

The adult bald eagle is a very large, dark brown to nearly black bird with a white head and tail. Its beak and legs are yellow. The immature bald eagle quickly attains adult size but lacks the white head and tail of the adult. The bald eagle feeds mainly on fish, but eats carrion whenever possible. In winter the bald eagle may kill and eat birds such as gulls and sea ducks.

Nests are usually in tall trees although they may occasionally be on cliffs; the nest is built of branches and sticks and can be very large. The female bald eagle lays 2 (rarely 3) eggs beginning in mid-April. Both the male and female actively hunt and care for the young.

Distribution

The bald eagle breeds from northwestern Alaska, the Mackenzie Delta, the Ungava Peninsula and Newfoundland south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Cape Breton - Nova Scotia's Bald Eagle Haven

Most of the Nova Scotian breeding bald eagle population is found on Cape Breton in the summer - in a 1984 survey, nearly 80% of the occupied bald eagle nests in Nova Scotia were found in Cape Breton.

The Nova Scotian population of bald eagles is important because of how few bald eagles were left in much of northeastern North America after widespread use of the pesticide DDT began. In fact, the bald eagle was considered an endangered species in the United States for many years. However, the Nova Scotian population of bald eagles remained relatively healthy and unaffected by DDT. Some Nova Scotian birds were sent to the United States to help re-establish the bald eagle populations in New Jersey and Massachusetts in the 1980s.

The bald eagle is one of the largest birds of prey in North America, with a wingspan of around 2 metres - about as wide as a professional basketball player is tall! Bald eagles take about 4 years to reach maturity. The call of a bald eagle is not the high, lonely cry you often hear on TV, but a harsh cackle like "kweek-kik-ik-ik-ik-ik-ik" or a lower "kak-kak-kak."

Bald eagles and other predatory birds are often at the top of the food chain. Toxins get more and more concentrated in animals that approach the top of the food chain, so a healthy population of birds of prey can be a good indicator of overall ecosystem health. To this end, a Raptor Monitoring Program was started by Cape Breton Highlands National Park in 2001. This program has volunteers walk trails regularly, actively searching for evidence of birds of prey.