Friday, February 17, 2012

Bald and Beautiful

Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) flew over several classes as we hiked along the Yellowstone River this month (photo at right by USACEpublicaffairs). One group even listened as the eagle chirped! To listen for yourself visit Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds website. For such a large bird, the eagle's cry is rather weak and unassuming. When eagles appear in movies, usually in Westerns, the red-tailed hawk's piercing cry is played in the background instead of the eagle's quiet warble. Thus, many people identify the hawk's call with the eagle.

Eagles are common along the river and other bodies of water. They mainly eat fish. They grab fish with their strong toes and very sharp talons that are adapted for hunting. They also have strong and sharp beaks to rip the flesh of their prey.

Eagles mate for life, and only seek a new mate if their original partner is lost. They build huge nests out of sticks, and use the same nest from year-to-year. Their nests may grow to weigh hundreds of pounds as they put new branches on each year.

The bald eagle is not truly bald (see photo at left by Pen Waggener). They earned their name because the white feathers on their head shine in contrast with the dark brown body feathers. Young bald eagles are mostly brown (even on their head) with white spotting on the body. By their fourth birthday, they take on the characteristic adult plumage.

We have seen both juveniles and adults at the Center this month. Two of the eagles are paired up and spending time by the trail under South Billings Boulevard. If we are lucky, they'll build a nest where we can watch the young eagles grow up!

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