Bird Files: Eagles Mate, Raise Messy Kids

  • A pair of eaglets in their nest in West Newbury, Massachusetts. This photo was taken by MassWildlife's Kurt Palmateer, who climbed up the tree to retrieve the chicks for banding by biologists on the ground sixty feet below.

July 2, 2015

Baby bald eagles are growing up quickly at this time of the year in our region.  We can watch some of them through live cameras trained on their nests along Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers.  What led to the eagles wasn’t caught on camera, but the birds’ mating ritual is quite a sight.

Bald eagles mate for life, but at the start of each mating season, they have an odd ritual to get back in the mood. From 1,000 feet in the air, they grasp their talons together, tumbling, swirling, and plunging head-first several hundred feet. After separating, they fly in different direction, and then they get busy.

Once their eggs have hatched, the baby eagles, called eaglets, have a lot to learn. They spend three months in the nest. Like rambunctious toddlers, they’re all about play, and all about messing up their parents’ hard-earned homes. They learn to use their beaks and talons by snatching twigs out of the nest and tossing them overboard. Eagle parents have a lot of upkeep to do. They’re constantly bringing more twigs and materials to their nests to patch up what their babies have undone. Bald eagle nests grow and grow. In addition to fixing what their young has destroyed, the adults add new materials to their same nest each season, in anticipation of their newest hatch. Their nests are among the largest nests in the U.S., weighing in at at least 100 to 200 pounds. Some nests can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds! 

Many people have never seen a bald eagle, though are eager to catch a glimpse of our national bird. Sometimes turkey vultures are mistaken for eagles since they’re so ubiquitous in the sky. But eagles are much much bigger. Their massive size and their stark white heads and white tails make them hard to miss. You just need to head to where the eagles are. Best sighting spots are along forested river valleys and glaciated or man-made lakes, since eagles in our area primarily eat fish. And with over 250 nests in the state, you’re bound to see a majestic pair.

Bird calls for this segment were provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Recorded by Gerrit Vyn. This story originally ran on May 30, 2014.