2 Eagle Species in South Dakota

With wingspans over 6 feet wide, eagles are massive birds of prey that command attention as they soar over the landscapes of South Dakota. Two species make their homes here – the iconic bald eagle along waterways statewide, and the golden eagle haunting cliffs and grasslands out west. See these powerful hunters up-close and you’ll appreciate the wild essence of America embodied in their fierce, freedom-loving forms. Spot their huge silhouettes high in a clear blue sky and you’ll sense the spirit of the wilderness watching over the prairies. Join us now as we explore the two most regal raptors in South Dakota – majestic symbols of nature at its most raw and awe-inspiring.

Characteristic Bald Eagle Golden Eagle
Description White head and tail, brown body. Iconic white-headed raptor of North America. Golden-brown head and neck, dark brown body. Largest bird of prey in North America.
Size 30-37 inches tall with a wingspan up to 90 inches. Weigh 9-14 lbs. 30-43 inches tall with a wingspan up to 90 inches. Weigh 8-15 lbs.
Habitat Found near large waterways – rivers, lakes, coasts. Nest in tall trees. Found in open country – grasslands, deserts, foothills, mountains. Nest on cliffs or trees.
Diet Mainly fish but also birds, carrion, reptiles and mammals. Mainly small-medium sized mammals but also some birds and carrion.
Population Status Recovered from near extinction. Over 300,000 in lower 48 states. Declining in some areas. 40,000-50,000 in North America.
Threats Habitat loss, wind turbine strikes, illegal shooting. Habitat loss, collisions, electrocutions, illegal shooting and poisoning.
Spot in SD Widespread east of the Missouri River. Western SD – Black Hills, Badlands, plains.

1. Bald Eagle

The bald eagle is one of the most recognizable birds in North America. This powerful bird of prey has a white head, white tail, and dark brown body and wings. With a wingspan up to 7 feet, the bald eagle is an impressive sight soaring over open waterways searching for fish, their main food source.

The bald eagle’s scientific name is Haliaeetus leucocephalus, which means “white-headed sea eagle.” They are large birds, with adult females averaging 10-14 lbs and males weighing less, around 9-10 lbs. Their distinctive white head doesn’t come in until they are 4-5 years old, when they reach sexual maturity. Younger bald eagles have mainly dark brown plumage.

Bald eagles mate for life, returning to the same territory and nest every year. Nests are often reused and can measure up to 10 feet wide and weigh half a ton! The nests are made of interwoven sticks and are lined with grass, moss, seaweed, and feathers. Bald eagles may have 1-3 eggs in a clutch and the parents will both help to incubate the eggs for about 35 days before they hatch.

Once the eaglets hatch they are completely dependent on their parents for food and protection. The parents hunt for fish, waterfowl and other small animals to feed their young. At 10-12 weeks, the eaglets will take their first flight but will continue to be fed and cared for by the parents for another 6 weeks. By late summer, the young eagles will leave the nest for good.

Bald eagles are found near large bodies of open water such as lakes, rivers, marshes and seacoasts where they can find fish, their main food source. They are also opportunistic feeders and will eat other prey like waterfowl, turtles, rabbits and carrion.

Bald eagles are powerful fliers, reaching speeds of 35-45 miles per hour during level flight. They can fly up to 10,000 feet high using thermal wind columns to rise with little effort. Their excellent vision allows them to spot prey from far distances. Hunters by nature, bald eagles will swoop down swiftly to grab unsuspecting fish at the water’s surface using their large, powerful talons.

Once threatened by habitat loss and the use of DDT, a harmful pesticide, bald eagle populations have rebounded since DDT was banned in 1972. They were removed from the endangered species list in 2007 as recovery efforts successfully increased their populations across North America.

South Dakota is home to two main bald eagle populations – those that nest and live here year-round and those that migrate here each winter from northern territories. The open waters of rivers, lakes and reservoirs in South Dakota provide good habitat for overwintering bald eagles that congregate here between November and March.

Locations to spot bald eagles in South Dakota include the Missouri River reservoirs, the Lower James River, and waters below hydroelectric dams such as Oahe, Fort Randall and Gavins Point. The Jake Jabs Recreation Area at Canyon Lake and Horsethief Lake State Park are also hot spots for bald eagle sightings.

Some key facts about bald eagles:

– They are a member of the sea eagle family and are native only to North America.

– Bald eagles build the largest tree nests of any bird in North America, up to 13 ft deep and 8 ft wide.

– Their distinctive white head comes in when they are 4-5 years old. Younger eagles are mottled brown and white.

– Bald eagles mate for life and use the same nest, repairing and adding to it each year.

– They add an average of 1-2 ft of material to their nests each year.

– Fish make up over 50% of a bald eagle’s diet. They also eat waterfowl, turtles, rabbits, snakes and carrion.

– Bald eagles can lift around 4 lbs – equivalent to a large fish – in their talons.

– They fly with powerful wingbeats and glide for extended periods using air thermals to gain altitude with little effort.

– Bald eagle numbers crashed between 1950-1970 due to habitat loss and the pesticide DDT collecting in the food chain.

– Conservation efforts brought bald eagles back from the brink of extinction. They were removed from the endangered species list in 2007.

– There are estimated to be over 316,700 bald eagles in the lower 48 states today compared to just 417 breeding pairs in 1963.

– South Dakota is home to around 400 breeding pairs of bald eagles.

– The best time to see bald eagles in South Dakota is November through March when northern birds migrate here for the winter.

So next time you are near an open waterway in South Dakota, look skyward and you just may spot the distinctive white-feathered head of a majestic bald eagle soaring overhead. With a wingspan of up to 7 feet, this powerful bird of prey commands attention as one of the most iconic avian symbols of wilderness and freedom.

2. Golden Eagle

The golden eagle is North America’s largest bird of prey, yet is less frequently spotted than the iconic bald eagle. This powerful predator has brown plumage overall, with golden-brown coloring on the back of the neck and head. With a wingspan up to 7.5 feet and weighing 8-15 lbs, the golden eagle is an impressive aerial hunter.

Golden eagles get their common name from the golden-brown feathers on the back of their neck and head. Their wings and underbelly are dark brown, with some white mottling visible on the wings and tail when seen up close. They have sharp, dark-colored beaks and feet with deadly talons used for hunting and capturing prey.

These large raptors are found in open country throughout western North America. They frequent grasslands, sagebrush, deserts, foothills and mountains. Golden eagles nest on cliff ledges or in large trees and hunt over wide ranges of more than 100 square miles. They primarily eat medium-sized mammals like jackrabbits, ground squirrels and prairie dogs but also prey on larger animals like foxes, bobcats and young deer. Birds make up a smaller portion of their diet.

Golden eagles are monogamous and mate for life unless one dies. Then the living mate will choose another partner. Breeding season is late winter, followed by 35-45 days of incubation mainly done by the female. The male supplies most food to the female during incubation.

Typically there are 1-3 eggs in a clutch. The eggs hatch asynchronously, which leads to a large size disparity between siblings. The oldest fledgling often kills its younger siblings. Juveniles have white at the base of their tail feathers and on the underside of their wings, which they lose by their fifth year.

These powerful fliers soar on thermal wind currents, sometimes to altitudes over 10,000 feet. They can reach speeds of 35-45 mph in flight. Golden eagles hunt by scanning open ground for prey activity from perches or while soaring. Once spotted, they stoop down swiftly to attack prey.

Sometimes they hunt cooperatively in pairs – one bird flushes prey from cover while the other ambushes it. They also cache uneaten food at nest sites to feed young later. Golden eagles are highly territorial and will aggressively defend nest sites and favorite hunting perches.

Though the golden eagle population is declining in some areas, they remain widespread across western North America. They do face threats from habitat loss, collisions with vehicles, turbines and power lines, illegal shooting and poisoning. Their low reproductive rates also hinder population growth.

In South Dakota, golden eagles occupy open habitats in the western half of the state including the Black Hills. They nest on secluded cliff ledges and hunt over grasslands, shrub lands, badlands and open woodlands. The best locations to potentially see golden eagles are in western South Dakota’s public lands.

Some key facts about golden eagles:

– They have a wingspan of 6-7.5 feet and weigh 8-15 pounds, making them North America’s largest bird of prey.

– Golden eagles mate for life, nesting on cliffs or in large trees, often re-using the same nest for multiple seasons.

– They lay 1-3 eggs, incubate for 35-45 days and fledge young in 2-3 months. Older siblings sometimes kill younger ones.

– Their diet is mainly medium-sized mammals like jackrabbits, squirrels and prairie dogs. They also eat some birds, reptiles and carrion.

– Golden eagles are apex predators that play an important role in balancing ecosystems by controlling prey populations.

– They soar for hours on end using hot air thermals to gain elevation and search vast hunting territories.

– These powerful raptors reach speeds of 35-45 mph in flight and can dive at up to 200 mph while hunting.

– Golden eagles use their razor-sharp talons to lift and carry prey up to 8 lbs in weight.

– They build large stick nests on cliffs or in trees and may use them repeatedly for many breeding seasons.

– Golden eagles occur over much of western North America and parts of Canada/Alaska but avoiding densely forested areas.

– Threats include habitat loss, vehicle collisions, turbine strikes, electrocutions, illegal shooting and poisoning.

– There are an estimated 40,000-50,000 golden eagles in North America today.

– In South Dakota, golden eagles live year-round in the Black Hills and western part of the state.

– Good areas to potentially see them include Custer State Park, Badlands National Park and Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

Majestic in flight with their six to seven-foot wingspans, golden eagles are masters of the skies over South Dakota’s western plains and grasslands. Watch for them soaring high overhead or perched on poles scanning for signs of prey on the landscape below. With sharp vision and deadly talons, these powerful raptors play a key role as apex predators of the region.


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