Nature lovers’ spirits soar when they see bald eagles swoop in to snack on salmon

The winter is a good time to see one of our most treasured native animals.

Bald eagles return to their favorite Northwest nesting places, where they can feast on the remains of spawned salmon. And, with leaves off the riverside trees, we have a better chance of spotting these beautiful birds in action.

Look for them along area rivers and estuaries, and consider a trip north this month for the annual Skagit Eagle Festival along the banks of the Skagit River.

Despite their name, bald eagles are never bald. Even newly-hatched chicks are covered with soft gray down. According to the online dictionary of etymology, the “bald” in bald eagle may have come from “ballede,” an old Celtic and Middle English term for the white patch on an animal’s head. An adult eagle’s stark white head and tail sandwich its brown body, looking like an inside-out Oreo cookie. That contrasting pattern and bright yellow beak, legs and feet also show us that we’re seeing a grown-up. Young bald eagles have a coffee-brown color all over their bodies, including beaks and feet, until they are about 4-6 years old.

Bald eagles are the second largest birds of prey in North America, just behind California condors. And the girls win the size contest. Female bald eagles can weigh up to 14 pounds, about as much as a heavy bowling ball, and stretch out their wings almost 8 feet from tip to tip. That’s about the length from the floor to the ceiling in many houses. Males are a bit smaller, growing up to 10 pounds with a 6-foot wingspan. They might seem like an odd-sized match, but bald eagles make great partners, often staying with their mates for life.

In late fall to early spring, they return from separate vacations to find each other again. Bald eagle partners celebrate their reunion with a wild, daring dance high up in the sky. Since they have no hands to hold, they hold feet instead, and spin round and round like a merry-go-round as they drop through the air, letting go only as the ground gets close.

The mates then get everything ready to start a new family. Both mom and dad gather sticks to weave into the nest, then cushion the inside with layers of moss, grasses, down feathers and other soft materials.

Big birds need a big nest, and bald eagles make some of the biggest anywhere — often the size of a large hot tub. Eagles may use the same nests year after year, adding new layers annually. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of the largest bald eagle nests on record measured nearly 10 feet across and weighed almost half a ton.

Such a nest high up in the tallest local tree makes a great place to raise bald eagle chicks, called eaglets. Eagle moms typically lay one to three eggs. Both parents help care for their offspring, sitting on the eggs to keep them warm and hunting for lots of extra food once the eaglets hatch. Those towering nests give the parents an excellent view of surrounding countryside, helping them spot all sorts of animals to hunt.

If you hear someone described as having “eagle eyes,” you know that person has sharp vision. Bald eagles can zero in on a squirrel scampering almost a mile away.

Nobody can call them picky eaters, either. These adaptable raptors will catch fish, other birds, turtles, muskrats, rabbits, snakes, crabs, mussels and whatever else is easy to find, including someone else’s meal. An eagle will bully other predators like osprey or river otters into dropping food that it will then steal.

Of course, the hungry eaglets don’t mind a stolen lunch one bit. As the chicks grow and test out their wings, the parents keep a close watch, circling overhead and calling to each other with high-pitched squeaky cries if people come too close to their nest tree.

By about 2 ½ months, eaglets are fully feathered and ready to fledge, or start leaving their nest. They still need help and food from mom and dad for another six weeks or so before they can hunt and fish for themselves. Then the young birds of prey venture off to have their own families and, if they’re lucky, live 20-30 years.

Finding healthy bald eagles raising babies in your area is something to celebrate. Our national bird was endangered not long ago because of pollution and people hunting them. Dangerous pesticides in eagles’ food made their eggs easy to break. But lots of people worked together to save bald eagles.

Now, enough eagle families are doing well that they are no longer endangered. Lots of them nest along Washington’s waterways, and that’s a good sign for the local environment. Everything that we do to keep our rivers, lakes and oceans clean helps bald eagles to do better. And, as the brand new year begins, we can take pride in that work and cheer on our national come-back bird.