North Carolina is home to a lot of different wildlife, and among the perhaps most magnificent are the eagles, known for their incredible hunting prowess, beauty, and symbolism of freedom. Bird enthusiasts and nature lovers alike are captivated by these birds.
North Carolina’s diverse habitats, which include expansive forests, mountains, and coastlines, provide the ideal living conditions for eagles to thrive in. Despite their position in the food web as apex predators, eagles, like most other wildlife, are fragile against human interference, and therefore face several hurdles in their struggle for survival, such as habitat loss, illegal poaching, and pollution.
However, conservation efforts are underway to safeguard and restore eagle populations in North Carolina, bringing hope for their future.
This article highlights the two eagle species found in North Carolina, their habitats and behaviors, as well as the initiatives in place to protect them. We will delve into their diet and nesting habits, as well as the challenges they encounter and the actions taken to combat them.
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, known for its majestic flight and hunting prowess, is the national emblem of the United States. These eagles are often seen scavenging for carrion or preying on other animals. In the 20th century, the Bald Eagle population drastically declined, nearly leading to extinction in the US.
However, conservation efforts have helped to revive their numbers, and they now flourish throughout the country. You can spot these magnificent birds near bodies of water in several North American regions, ranging from Alaska to Mexico.
They’re unmistakable with their striking physical traits, which consist of a dark-brown body, white head and tail, and tawny-yellow beak. Despite what many believe, the “Bald” name originates from the Old English word “pieBald,” which describes the eagle’s distinctive two-tone feather coloring, rather than a lack of feathers on its head.
The nesting habits of Bald Eagles in North Carolina are a quite interesting process that requires close attention and coordination. The eagles usually construct their nests in tall trees, providing protection and an unobstructed view of their surroundings.
They are often situated near large bodies of water where fish are abundant. During the breeding season, adult eagles engage in courtship displays that feature impressive aerial maneuvers. After finding a suitable location, the pair constructs a colossal nest using materials such as twigs, grass, moss, feathers, and soft substances.
These massive structures can reach all the way up to 10 feet in width, 4 feet in depth, and weigh up to 1,000 pounds, which is the equivalent of 4 full-size fridges! The female eagle lays one to three eggs, which both parents take turns incubating and caring for until they hatch. The young are nourished with regurgitated food and kept warm under the parents’ watchful wings.
As the eaglets become more active and begin to explore their environment, the parents continue to provide food and protection until they mature enough to leave the nest. This process can last several months and showcases the remarkable commitment of Bald Eagles to their offspring and their home.
Their ability to adapt to different habitats and ecosystems is exemplified by their broad dietary preferences. The Bald Eagles’ eating habits in North Carolina are characterized by their adaptability and versatility, as they have been observed consuming a diverse range of prey. These birds are opportunistic and can scavenge for food when necessary.
They primarily feed on fish, which they capture by diving into the water using their powerful talons.
Their diet is not restricted to the ecosystems near water, as they also hunt small mammals like rabbits and squirrels, and are known to prey on birds, particularly waterfowl such as ducks and geese. To capture their prey, Bald Eagles employ a range of techniques, including aerial pursuits and high-speed dives.
In the 18th century, the Bald Eagle population in the USA was estimated to range between an astonishing 300,000 to 500,000 individuals. However, by the 1950s, this number had drastically plummeted to only 412 pairs due to a multitude of factors.
This decline was further exacerbated in the 20th century, with reports from the 1920s indicating that Bald Eagles were viciously attacking young lambs and children, resulting in the shooting of roughly 70,000 Bald Eagles, both lawfully and unlawfully.
The most significant contributor to the population decrease was the widespread use of DDT, a potent insecticide that emerged in 1874 and became incredibly popular in the 20th century due to its unparalleled efficacy over other pesticides.
DDT was discovered to accumulate in the food chain, with Bald Eagles at the top. This lethal chemical caused the birds to struggle tremendously with producing eggshells, which led to the eggs collapsing under the weight of adult birds while brooding, ultimately resulting in a heartbreaking halt in reproduction.
The “Migratory Bird Treaty” of 1918 and the “Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act” of 1940 were established to ardently safeguard the species, which mercifully put an end to the commercial trapping and killing of these birds.
Additional comprehensive regulations were duly imposed in 1962 and 1972. Finally, DDT was fully banned in the USA in 1972, which has resulted in a gradual but encouraging increase in the Bald Eagle population, which is presently estimated to be around a remarkable 300,000 individuals in the USA.
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 revered bird of prey that inhabits the northern regions in North America, Europe, and Asia. While it had disappeared from my home country of Denmark in the 1850s, they have recently returned to the region.
With its striking dark Golden-brown plumage and impressive V-shaped wingspan, it is a majestic sight when gliding through the skies. The Golden Eagle is known for its exceptional hunting skills, especially in open areas like mountainous regions, grasslands, and steppes, where it can capture small mammals with deadly accuracy.
Many Native American cultures hold the Golden Eagle in high regard for its strength and bravery, considering its feathers to be a rare and cherished blessing from this powerful creature.
In North Carolina, Golden Eagles have a particular preference for nesting in remote, mountainous areas that offer security and a clear view of their surroundings. To construct their nests, they choose tall cliffs or rocky outcrops with dimensions reaching up to 6 feet in width and 3 feet in depth.
Their nests are made using a variety of different materials, like sticks, grass, moss, fur, and feathers, all of which provide a lot of insulation. This is important, as low temperature when brooding or after the eggs hatch can have huge consequences for the chicks.
The nesting process begins in late winter or early spring when both the male and female birds collaborate to prepare and build the nest. Once the nest is complete, the female will lay one to three eggs, and both parents usually take turns incubating them for around 45 days, while the other one finds food.
During this time, the parents work tirelessly to keep the eggs warm and protect them from potential predators.
After hatching, the parents continue to provide constant care and attention to their young by feeding them regurgitated food and sheltering them under their protective wings.
As the young eagles grow and become more active, the parents teach them essential survival skills such as hunting and flying, preparing them for their independent lives.
In North Carolina, the diet of the Golden Eagle primarily consists of small mammals such as rabbits, squirrels, and groundhogs. These small animals make up a significant portion of the Golden Eagle’s diet and are often captured using the bird’s sharp talons.
Golden Eagles are also opportunistic hunters and will occasionally feed on larger prey such as deer fawns, young domestic animals, and other birds. They are known to occasionally hunt snakes and reptiles as well. These large raptors are often seen soaring high in the sky and scanning the ground for potential prey.
The diet of Golden Eagles varies depending on the season and availability of prey. During the winter months, when mammals are less abundant, these animals will also prey on waterfowl and other birds that are common in or around wetland areas. They have been observed hunting ducks and geese in flight and on the water.
The Golden Eagle, like its close relative the Bald Eagle, experienced a significant decline in population throughout North America during the 20th century, largely due to hunting and exposure to DDT.
At present, there are believed to be roughly 30,000 Golden Eagles remaining in the United States, with a stable or slightly decreasing population trend.
The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 was enacted to prohibit the commercial trapping and killing of these birds, with additional protections being implemented in 1962 and 1972 to prevent illegal killing and poaching. Finally, in 1972, the use of DDT was banned in the USA, playing a vital role in the Golden Eagle’s population recovery.
The Golden Eagle’s persistence and resurgence are proof of successful conservation initiatives and the bird’s extraordinary resilience. Its capability to overcome challenges and flourish once again in North America is a source of motivation and optimism for future conservation efforts.
Where to find Eagles in North Carolina
North Carolina is an excellent destination for birdwatching, especially for those hoping to spot eagles in their natural habitats. To really maximize your chances of seeing these majestic birds, it’s important to know where to look and when, since their home ranges can be huge and they can sometimes be shy.
One of the best areas for eagle-watching in North Carolina is the Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, located in eastern North Carolina. This area is home to a variety of different bird species, including the two eagles on this list. Visitors can view eagles from the refuge’s observation decks, or take a guided birding tour led by a local expert.
Another great spot for eagle-watching is the Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge. Located in eastern North Carolina, this refuge is known for its impressive populations of Bald eagles. The best time to visit is in the winter months, when the eagles are most active and visible.
The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is also a great place to spot eagles in North Carolina. This refuge is located in northeastern North Carolina and is home to a variety of bird species, including our two eagles. Visitors even have the possibility to view eagles from the refuge’s observation decks or take a guided birding tour.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is another really good destination for eagle-watching in North Carolina. Both the Golden and Bald eagle call this place their home, as well as many other different birds. Also, this place has guided tours to help newcomers in the bird-watching community, but exploring on your own is also a possibility.
Eagles, such as the Golden and Bald Eagles, have always been highly esteemed and revered in the traditions and religion of many Native American tribes. These magnificent birds are still considered significant symbols and are regarded with great pride.
Throughout history, eagles have been hunted and seen as a menace to both our livestock and children. Furthermore, their populations have been threatened by indirect poisoning from pesticides, trapping, and habitat destruction.
Protective laws have been implemented to address these issues, leading to a resurgence in eagle populations. However, birds of prey, including Golden and Bald Eagles, still face hazards from collisions with vehicles, buildings, and towers.
Despite the challenges that eagles face, there has been a recent upsurge in eagle sightings in North Carolina, particularly Golden Eagles. This trend suggests that the state is becoming a more favored breeding and wintering location for these birds.
The sight of eagles gliding effortlessly through the sky or perched atop trees is breathtaking. They remain a popular draw for birdwatchers, even though they are frequently seen in their natural habitats. Having worked with Golden Eagle habitats for years, I can personally attest that watching them hunt, fly, or simply rest is always an extraordinary experience.