Q: Where do eagles nest? A: Wherever they want! Okay, that’s a joke. But eagles are among the largest predatory birds on earth. So one might expect them to have their pick of nesting sites. Yet to the contrary, their size and weight, as well as their feeding habits, impose some constraints on where eagles are able to nest.
Golden eagles lack the distinctive white head and tail of the adult bald eagle.
What Eagles Are Native to North America?
There are more than 60 species of eagles across the globe. But only two make their nests on the North American continent. The bald eagle, with its white-feathered head and tail, is probably familiar to you as the national bird of the U.S.A. In fact, there’s a long tradition of the eagle, as the “king of birds,” being used as symbols of strength and authority, going at least as far back as the Roman Empire.
The golden eagle is the other North American eagle. They’re a similar-looking species to the bald eagle, minus the white head and tail markings. (Juvenile bald eagles also have brown heads, making it easy to misidentify them.) They also differ in habitat and diet. Goldens prefer to live in mountainous regions and feed on small mammals, while the bald eagle hangs out near water and feeds mostly on fish. Golden eagles are found across the world, while, appropriately, bald eagles are native to North America only.
It’s worth noting that despite their symbolic significance, bald eagles were in serious decline at the beginning of the 20th century, due to hunting and the effects of pesticides. Thanks to the Endangered Species Act and other conservation efforts, their numbers are bouncing back. Golden eagles didn’t suffer quite the same population decline. But both species are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. These laws prohibit killing, selling, or otherwise harming eagles, their nests, or their eggs. Possession of eagle feathers or other parts is also prohibited. Because eagles have cultural and religious significance in many Native American traditions, the National Eagle Repository was established to collect such materials and distribute them to Native communities.
Where Do Eagles Nest?
Since bald eagles re-use their nests, they can get bigger every year.
Eagles are large birds, so their jumbo-sized nests need to be built in large, sturdy trees. A typical bald eagle nest is 40-100 feet above ground, in the crotch of a branch near the tree top. Bald eagles choose a nesting site that’s close to a food source that can support a nested pair of birds as well as their eaglets.
Since bald eagles are fish-eaters, the nest will be near a body of water like a lake or river. Often the eagles choose one of the tallest trees in the area. This makes it easier for them to glide out of the nest. A high vantage point also enables them to keep a lookout for potential threats, including other birds that might try to take their nest or prey on their eggs or young. Eagles prefer to nest in live trees, in contrast with ospreys, who make similar-looking nests but prefer dead trees.
Nest, Sweet Home
Eagles lay 1-3 eggs at a time, and the young stay in the nest for between 4 and 5 months. So eagle nests are bulky, big enough to house a male and female and their chicks. (Did you know that female bald eagles are bigger than males?) The nests can be as big as 8 feet wide and 12 feet high, though 5-6 feet by 3 feet is more typical.
From the outside, an eagle nest looks like it’s all twigs and branches. But the birds line the inside with moss, grass, twigs, and feathers to keep things comfy. Both the male and females construct the nest. Bald eagles mate for life, and a pair will typically re-use the same nest after returning from winter migration. They usually have one or more alternate nests in their territory, too. A nest can get bigger and bigger as the birds add to it over the years. In fact, the largest on record was 9.5 feet in diameter, 20 feet deep, and weighed almost 6,000 pounds!
Unlike bald eagles, golden eagles don’t need to live near a body of water.
Being similar in size and weight, golden eagles are under similar constraints as bald eagles in building their nests. They typically choose to nest on cliff ledges (bald eagles sometimes do this too). But they often choose the tops of tall trees that offer an unobstructed view of the area. Golden eagles seem especially sensitive to human activity and will avoid areas with too much human hubbub. Like bald eagles, golden eagles mate for life, and will reuse and enlarge the same nest. So they also may have large, heavy nests that can be 8 feet wide and weigh thousands of pounds.
Remember that eagles and their nesting sites are best observed from a distance. To protect our native eagles, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers guidance for anyone who lives or works near eagles and their nests.