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Bald Eagles Aren't Really Bald, Plus 6 Other Facts

Bald Eagle
A bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephaus) in flight in the wilds of Alaska. The average wingspan of a bald eagle is between 5 and 6 feet (1.5 and 1.8 meters). Avalon/Getty Images

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Let's face it: If you're a young nation selecting a national bird, choosing the bald eagle is like being People magazine and choosing the bird version of their sexiest man alive. It's got the unforgettable profile. The steely-eyed gaze. The dramatic white and brown coloring and awesome wingspan. At least that's probably what members of Congress thought in 1789 when the bald eagle was chosen to represent the fledgling nation. (Heh. Fledgling. Didja see what I did there?)

To get the scoop on our national bird, we talked to Scott Courdin, wildlife curator at the Center for Wildlife Education and the Lamar Q. Ball, Jr. Raptor Center at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. Courdin is an expert falconer, along with managing the center's menagerie, which includes two bald eagles. Here are seven interesting facts you should know about this special species:

1. The Turkey Could Have Been the U.S. National Bird

Believe it or not, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was a proponent of the turkey as the national bird, calling it more "respectable," and "withal a true, original native of America."

Courdin says part of Franklin's beef was that the bald eagle is a scavenger. "Which they are," he adds. "Of all the birds of prey other than vultures, bald eagles will most readily go to a dead animal on the side of the road where other birds of prey will only eat carrion if they are starving."

Nevertheless, the bald eagle was chosen as a symbol of strength, courage and freedom. And despite Franklin's comments, the bald eagle is indigenous only to North America unlike other eagles.

2. Bald Eagles Chow Mostly on Fish

So, what else do eagles eat? Mostly fish, waterfowl and other small game like rabbits, squirrels or rodents. They require a pretty wide hunting territory, about 25 miles (40 kilometers). A 6-pound (2.7 kilogram) eagle (which is about average) can live off two adult rats easily. "That's a daily feed," says Courdin. "But most birds don't eat every day because they will catch something that's large enough to sustain them for a couple of days. Instead, they might feed off something large and fill their crop, a part of their digestive system where they temporarily store food that can sustain them for two or three days. Sometimes even longer."

3. Balde is Beautiful

The bald eagle isn't called bald because his scalp looks hairless, but because it's white. Its name comes from the Middle English word "balde" which means "white." In fact, bald eagles don't even develop their striking white head and tail feathers until they are mature, somewhere between 4 and 5 years old.

4. A 6- to 7-Foot Wingspan Is Typical

Female bald eagles are larger than males, and can weigh anywhere from 10 to 14 pounds (4.5 to 6.3 kilograms). Her wingspan will be between 6 to 7 feet (1.8 to 2.1 meters) The male eagle is smaller, at around 9 to 10 pounds (4 to 4.5 kilograms). His wingspan is about 5.5 to 6 feet (1.6 to 1.8 meters).

5. Eagles Mean It When They Say 'I Do'

Eagles mate for life. If one mate dies, the remaining bird may take a new mate. Mates build nests, or aeries, together, which takes about one to three months.

6. Eagles Lay One Clutch of Eggs Per Year

Because it takes 10 to 12 weeks for eagles to grow and fledge (take their first flight), eagles lay only one clutch (or group of eggs) per year. Both parents share incubation duties (35 days).

"If their eggs or their young are destroyed early enough in the season, they will lay another clutch to try to reproduce again," Courdin says. "In fact, that's part of how they got the (bald) eagle population back up. They would remove eagle eggs from the nest early in the season and the adult eagle would lay another set of eggs. It's called a 'double clutch.'"

7. Their Nests Are Huge

The average nest size is 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters) in diameter and 2 to 4 feet (0.5 to 1.2 meters) deep. The biggest aerie on record was built by a pair of bald eagles in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was 9 feet (2.9 meters) wide, 20 feet (6 meters) deep and weighed 2 tons (1.8 metric tons).

"Eagles only live in their nest during the mating season, incubation and while they're raising the fledglings," says Courdin. "Once they learn to fly and everyone is out, they don't live in the nest." They'll return to the same nest year after year, if possible, but will leave if the tree it's built in can't sustain it.

Courdin has worked with many raptors but says bald eagles are unique. "The tend to never forget anything and they hold grudges," he adds. "If you're training an eagle and you make a mistake that can either ruin the training you've done or set you back several months." Courdin said it took five years to train Freedom, the male bald eagle trained at the Raptor Center.

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