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http://wdfw.wa.gov/factshts/baldeagle.htm March 2001

Bald Eagles in Washington
Bald eagles have increased in Washington State from about 105 nesting pairs in 1980, to about 650 pairs today. The present spring population of up to 2,000 eagles compares to perhaps 6,000- 10,000 eagles when Lewis and Clark first visited Washington in 1805. Many additional eagles that breed in Alaska and British Columbia come to Washington for the winter to feed on spawned salmon. The last state-wide winter survey in 1989 counted almost 2,900 eagles, and there may now be up to 3-4,000 present during winter.

The recovery of bald eagles in recent years can be attributed to several factors, including the ban on the use of the pesticide DDT, protection of nesting and roosting habitat, the use of non-toxic shot for waterfowl hunting, and probably, a reduction in shooting and persecution. In Washington, a small portion of eagle nests are in parks and other protected public lands, but 2/3 of nests are located on private lands. Private landowners who have cooperated in protecting nesting birds and their habitat deserve our thanks in helping eagles recover to their present numbers. As a result of recent increases in bald eagles, they may be removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species in 2001and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is reviewing their status as a state threatened species. However, bald eagles will still be protected by state and federal laws. Bald Eagle Biology Bald eagles have a wing span of 6 ½ to 7 ½ feet, and weigh 6-15 pounds. Juvenile and sub adult eagles lack the white head and tail, and display various patterns of dark brown, light brown, gray, and white. Eagles do not acquire their distinctive adult plumage until about 5 years of age. Bald eagles typically do not breed until 6-8 years of age. Once they have established a territory they often return to it year after year.

Bald eagles in Washington are migratory, and eagles that nest in Washington typically move north after nesting and spend several weeks each year feeding on early salmon runs in coastal British Columbia and southeast Alaska. Many of the eagles that concentrate along rivers in Washington during winter are birds that nest in Alaska, British Columbia, and Montana. Washington nesters usually return to their territories by late January. Bald eagles are not fussy eaters ,and will take advantage of a wide variety of foods, including fish, birds, carrion, and miscellaneous small mammals, mollusks, and crustaceans. Fish, including spawned salmon, carp, suckers, bullheads, and summers die-offs of perch are among the wide variety of fish eaten. Birds that are frequent prey include gulls, waterfowl, coots, seabirds, pigeons, and crows. Habitat needs of bald eagles include timber with large trees near water. In Washington, 97% of nests are within 3,000 ft of a marine, lake or river shore. Large trees along shorelines are important perch sites for foraging. At night, eagles often perch together in communal roosts. Roost sites are selected that provide a favorable microclimate, such as protection from prevailing winds. Many roosts located near winter food sources are used year after year. The longevity record for bald eagles in the wild is at least 28 years, but the average life span is often much shorter. One study estimated the maximum lifespan for birds from the Yellowstone area at 15.4 years and a study of Alaska birds estimated the average at 19 years. Sources of adult mortality include fighting with other eagles, and a variety of human-related causes including shooting, electrocution on power lines, vehicle collisions, and poisoning.


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Bald eagles that nest in Washington constitute a different population than eagles that winter here. After nesting, breeding eagles migrate to British Columbia and southeast Alaska for several weeks in the fall before they return to Washington. Little has been documented about bald eagle longevity in the wild. A few band returns from Alaska show wild eagles may live up to 35 years. Bald eagles molt through several transitional plumages before attaining the white head and tail characteristic of a sexually-mature adult (see photos). Although bald eagles establish strong pair-bonds, telemetry data suggests individuals of a mated pair may be supplanted by other adults more often than traditionally believed.

The bald eagle is a Sensitive Species in Washington. About 1300 nesting pairs of bald eagles reside in the state. Several hundred additional bald eagles occupy rivers and streams each winter to feed on carcasses of chum and coho salmon that have returned to spawn. The Skagit River is one of the key wintering areas for bald eagles in the Pacific Northwest, with as many as 500 eagles found on the upper reaches within the Skagit Wild and Scenic River System (SW&SRS). The river is also popular for sport fishing, rafting, and bird watching. Between 1996 and 2007 the WDFW, in cooperation with the Forest Service and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, initiated a research project to help clarify the importance of winter activities to the health of Skagit River bald eagles. Eagles were trapped, banded, and affixed with satellite transmitters to monitor their movements. By following these eagles, we identified their origins, the status of breeding populations where they originated, and their individual survival.
Chum salmon carcasses are the principal reason eagles concentrate along the river during winter.

Adult eagle perched on roosting tree along the Skagit River.

Related Links:

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Raptor Information System Argos Satellite Telemetry Website K- 12 students learn about wildlife migration throughout N. America, including Skagit River bald eagles

Transitional plumages of bald eagles from juvenile through adult.

Sensitive Species - "Any wildlife species native to the state of Washington that is vulnerable or declining and is likely to become endangered or threatened throughout a significant portion of its range within the state without cooperative management or removal of threats." WAC 232-12-297, Section 2.6

The bald eagle was delisted in 2007 at the federal level by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and classified as a Sensitive species in by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. In 1978 just over 100 nesting pairs of eagles were known in Washington. Since that time the nesting population has increased to approximately 1300 pairs. The banning of DDT in the 1970's is thought to have contributed to the increases in the nesting population. Wintering populations in Washington are thought to be stable or increasing. Habitat loss continues to be a threat to breeding and wintering bald eagle populations.

Each year thousands of people visit the Skagit River to fish, raft, and view eagles. The river is an extremely popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts interested in seeing one of the largest concentrations of wintering bald eagles anywhere in the lower 48 states. Over 300 eagles use the river during the peak month January. Eagles were trapped on gravel bars along the river where they fed on salmon carcasses. Snares placed around the carcasses, and controlled remotely, were used to capture the birds. Blue band markers were be placed on the legs of all captured eagles, identifying the Skagit River (S), year of capture (6), and a letter specific to the eagle (a-z).

Satellite transmitters were attached to adult eagles with backpack harnesses. Signals from the transmitters were received by NOAA satellites and location data were sent to ground stations then retrieved via computer by biologists.

Skagit River Bald Eagles: 1998 Progress Report

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