California is a haven for eagles, with diverse ecosystems providing ideal habitats for several species. The Golden State’s mountains, coasts, and wetlands provide breeding grounds, hunting sites, and nesting locations for Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, and other raptors.
While the Bald Eagle was once endangered in all of the USA, concerted conservation efforts have brought the population back to a healthy level, and the species is now classified as “threatened” in California.
Golden Eagles, on the other hand, continue to face numerous challenges, including habitat loss and human disturbance, and illegal hunting. Nevertheless, they remain a powerful symbol of the American West, soaring over rugged terrain and catching prey with deadly precision.
This article aims to explore the biology, nesting behavior, and conservation of eagles in California, while looking into their unique features and the challenges they face in the modern world.
1. Bald Eagle
- Scientific name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
- Life span: 20-30 years
- Size: 2.5 to 3 feet (0.7 to 0.9 meters)
- Weight: 6.6 to 13,8 lbs (3 to 6.3 kg)
- Wingspan: 66 to 96 in (165 to 244 cm)
- Status: Least Concern
The Bald Eagle holds a revered place as the national emblem of the United States. It’s known for its majestic flight and impressive hunting abilities but is also often seen scavenging carrion and other animals’ prey.
The population of the Bald Eagle experienced a significant decline throughout the 20th century and almost disappeared from the American landscape. However, conservation efforts have helped to revive the population, and the Bald Eagle now thrives throughout the country it represents.
This stunning raptor can be found near bodies of water across the United States, from the frigid expanses of Alaska to the milder climates of northern Mexico and much of Canada. It has a dark-brown body and a white head and tail, complimented by a tawny-yellow beak.
Despite common belief, the name “Bald Eagle” does not derive from a lack of feathers on its head. Instead, it originates from the Old English term “piebald,” which describes the bird’s distinct two-tone coloring.
The nesting behavior of the Bald Eagles in California is a fascinating process that requires great attention to detail and coordination.
These birds prefer to build their nests in tall trees, which offer both protection and an unobstructed view of their surroundings and typically locate them near large bodies of water where they can find fish to feed on.
During the nesting season, the adult birds engage in courtship displays that involve impressive aerial feats.
Once they have found a suitable nesting site, they start building a massive nest using various materials, including twigs, grass, moss, feathers, and soft materials, with dimensions that can reach up to 10 feet in width and 4 feet in depth, and weighing as much as 1,000 pounds; truly incredible structures to see.
The female Bald Eagle lays one to three eggs, which both parents take turns incubating and caring for until they hatch. The eaglets are fed regurgitated food and kept warm under their parents’ protective wings, as they grow increasingly mobile and start to explore their surroundings.
The parents continue to provide food and protection until the eaglets are mature enough to leave the nest, a process that can take several months, showcasing the Bald Eagle’s remarkable dedication to their young and their nest.
The feeding habits of Bald Eagles in California are incredibly adaptable, with a diverse diet that reflects their opportunistic nature. Despite their proud looks and reputation, they’re also known to scavenge when prey is scarce, and their diet includes a wide range of prey.
Fish make up a significant part of their diet, which they catch by swiftly diving into the water using their strong talons.
However, they’re not only hunting by sea or in lakes, and thus small mammals like rabbits and squirrels, and birds, especially waterfowl, such as ducks and geese are also part of their normal diet. Bald Eagles are proficient hunters and use a variety of techniques to catch their prey, from spotting it from afar to diving at high speeds to snatch it.
They also have exceptional aerial skills and are known to pursue their quarry into the water for fish or other aquatic prey. The resourcefulness and adaptability of the Bald Eagles in California are demonstrated by their diverse diet, which allows them to thrive in different habitats and ecosystems.
The Bald Eagle population in the USA is estimated to have been between 300,000 and 500,000 in the 18th century. However, this drastically decreased to only 417 pairs in the 1950s due to various factors.
The decrease rate further accelerated in the 20th century. Reports from the 1920s suggested that Bald Eagles were attacking young lambs and children, leading to the legal and illegal shooting of approximately 70,000 Bald Eagles.
One of the primary contributing factors to the population decline is believed to have been the widespread use of DDT, a pesticide that was invented in 1874, but became extremely popular in the 20th century due to its superiority to other pesticides at the time. DDT was found to biomagnify in the food chain, with Bald Eagles at the top.
The chemical caused the birds to experience difficulty in making eggshells, leading to eggs collapsing under the weight of the adult birds when brooding and preventing reproduction. To protect the species, the “Migratory Bird Treaty” of 1819 and the “Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act” of 1940 were put in place, prohibiting the commercial trapping and killing of the birds. Additional restrictions were later imposed in 1962 and 1972.
Finally, DDT was fully banned in the USA in 1972, which can be seen in the Bald Eagle population, as it has steadily increased, with an estimated 300,000 individuals in the USA today.
2. Golden Eagle
- Scientific name: Aquila chrysaetos
- Life span: 30 years
- Size: 33 inches (83 cm)
- Weight: 6.4 to 13.2 lb (2.9 to 6 kg)
- Wingspan: 70 to 90 in (180 to 230 cm)
- Status: Least Concern
The Golden Eagle is a large and magnificent bird of prey that is present in the northern regions of the world, including North America, Europe, and Asia.
In my home country of Denmark, they have been gone since the 1850s and have only returned this millennium. Its almost royal-like presence is due to its dark golden-brown plumage, and its impressive V-shaped wingspan when gliding is truly breathtaking.
The Golden Eagle is known for its remarkable hunting skills, particularly in remote open areas such as mountainous regions, grasslands, and steppes, where it can take down small mammals with lethal accuracy.
In various Native American cultures, the Golden Eagle holds great cultural significance and is revered for its strength and bravery. Owning one of its feathers was considered a rare and esteemed blessing from this powerful creature.
Golden Eagle is an indigenous species in California, and they are known to breed in the western United States, and their nesting behavior is similar to their Bald Eagle relatives.
Golden Eagles are monogamous, forming lifelong bonds with their partners, and both males and females construct and tend to the nest year after year.
The nest, often found in tall trees or on a cliff, can measure up to 6 feet across and 4 feet deep and is made of natural materials like twigs, branches, moss, and grass.
In California, Golden Eagles usually lay 1-3 eggs per clutch in late winter or early spring, and both parents take turns incubating the eggs for approximately 42 days. After hatching, the chicks are cared for by both parents and learn to fly at around 10-12 weeks old.
They will feed on various prey, including rabbits, squirrels, prairie dogs, groundhogs, and other small mammals, as well as birds, reptiles, and fish. Their hunting strategy is determined by their habitat, with Golden Eagles often perching on tall trees or cliffs and scanning for prey. They use their sharp talons to catch and kill their prey and can also steal food from other birds of prey.
Like the Bald Eagle, the Golden Eagle suffered a significant population decline in North America during the 20th century due to hunting and exposure to DDT. Presently, it is estimated that around 30,000 individuals of this striking bird remain in the United States, with a stable or slightly decreasing population trend.
In 1940, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act was passed, which outlawed the commercial trapping and killing of these birds. Additional protections were enacted in 1962 and 1972 to prevent illegal killing and poaching.
In 1972, the use of DDT was banned in the USA, contributing to the Golden Eagle’s population recovery. The continued presence and recovery of this magnificent bird demonstrate the effectiveness of conservation efforts and the bird’s remarkable resilience.
Where to find Eagles in California
The Golden and Bald Eagles can be found throughout the state, from coastal regions to inland areas, and in mountainous regions. However, finding eagles in California can be a challenging task, as they are highly mobile and their home ranges tend to be huge.
One way to spot eagles in California is to visit their nesting sites during the breeding season. Typically, Golden Eagles breed in the winter months, while Bald Eagles breed in the early spring. Golden Eagles will often build their nests on rocky cliffs, while Bald Eagles prefer tall trees near water sources.
Keep in mind that eagles are highly sensitive to human disturbance, so it’s important to observe them from a distance and not to approach their nesting sites, especially in the breeding season, as it might affect their behavior and might ultimately lead them to leave the nest and their chicks.
Four good areas to find eagles in California are:
- Sierra Nevada Mountains
- Mount Diablo State Park
- Point Reyes National Seashore
- Lake Berryessa.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains offer a diverse range of habitats, from alpine meadows to oak woodlands, where eagles can be spotted soaring above or perched on a tree or rock.
Mount Diablo State Park has several hiking trails that offer panoramic views of the surrounding areas, and eagles can be spotted flying high above the hills.
Point Reyes National Seashore is a popular spot for birdwatching, with several species of eagles, including Bald Eagles, that can be spotted along the coastal areas.
Lake Berryessa is a large reservoir that attracts a variety of wildlife, including eagles, that can be spotted perched on trees or flying over the water.
In the traditions and religion of many American Indian tribes, eagles such as the Golden and Bald Eagles are highly respected and held in great reverence. Despite the passage of time, they continue to be viewed with pride and are considered important symbols.
Throughout history, eagles have been hunted, with some believing that they posed a danger to livestock and children. They have also faced other threats, such as indirect poisoning from pesticides, trapping, and habitat destruction.
These factors led some species to the brink of extinction during the 20th century. However, many of these dangers have been addressed by protective laws, leading to a resurgence in their populations.
Nonetheless, collisions with vehicles, buildings, and towers remain a significant hazard for many birds of prey, including Golden and Bald Eagles.
Despite all the threats and problems facing these magnificent creatures, there has been an increase in eagle sightings in California in recent years, particularly Golden Eagles, suggesting that the state is becoming an increasingly popular location for wintering and breeding eagles.
Eagles are an awe-inspiring sight as they soar effortlessly through the sky or perch atop trees. They remain a popular attraction for birdwatchers, even though they are commonly seen in their natural habitats.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Golden Eagle habitats for some years now, and even though I see them on a daily basis, watching them hunt, fly or just sit is always a great experience.