Soaring majestically over the forests and coastlines of Virginia, bald and golden eagles inspire awe with their power and grace. As apex predators, they sit atop the state’s ecological web and serve as living symbols of wilderness itself. This article explores the natural histories of the two eagle species found in Virginia – the iconic bald eagle and the rarer golden eagle. We’ll examine details about their identification, preferred habitats, hunting strategies, breeding ecology, conservation status, and the best places in the state to spot these magnificent birds. Get ready to learn about the kings of the skies in Virginia!
|Features||Bald Eagle||Golden Eagle|
|Size||Large, 28-40 inches long. 8-14 lbs.||Very large, 30-43 inches long. 7-15 lbs.|
|Wingspan||6.5-7.5 feet||6.5-7.5 feet|
|Plumage||White head and tail, dark brown body||Golden brown overall|
|Range||Throughout North America||Western North America, some in Appalachians|
|Population||Increasing, approx. 1500 pairs in lower 48 states||Slowly declining, approx. 20 pairs in Virginia|
|Habitat||Near large bodies of water||Mountains, open country|
|Prey||Mainly fish, some mammals and birds||Mammals like rabbits, marmots|
|Nest Site||Trees or cliffs near water||Cliffs or large trees|
1. Bald Eagle
The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is arguably the most recognizable eagle species in the United States. With a snowy white head and tail contrasting with a dark brown body, these majestic birds are a symbol of our nation. Approximately 7,066 bald eagle pairs were documented across the lower 48 states during the last national survey in 2019. Of those, an estimated 157 were found in Virginia.
Bald eagles are extremely large birds, with weights ranging from 8 to 14 pounds for females and males respectively. Their wingspans stretch from 6 to 7.5 feet. Their size allows them to be powerful hunters. Bald eagles mainly eat fish, complimenting their diet with other readily available mammals and birds.
A cool adaptation bald eagles utilize is a specialized toe configuration called raptor feet. The front toes are long and slender, while the back toe is short but very strong. This gives their feet a firm grip, perfect for grasping prey tightly.
These eagles are most often found near large bodies of water, as fish comprise much of their diet. They also favor coniferous forests. Ideal nesting habitats include tall trees near water. Their nests grow enormously large, reaching up to 8 feet wide and weighing over 1 ton.
Bald eagles mate for life, returning to the same territories year after year. Their courtship consists of elaborate aerial displays by both males and females. Once bonded, pairs aggressively defend nesting territories.
Breeding season lasts from February through July. Females normally lay between 1 to 3 eggs. After about 35 days of incubation, the eggs hatch in the order they were laid. Siblings are very competitive for food, with the first hatched having a clear advantage. If food is scarce, later hatchlings may not survive.
Both parents share responsibility of raising the young called eaglets. They remain at the nest for 10 to 12 weeks, depending on the rate of development. Bald eagles go through five molts before acquiring their distinctive adult plumage at about five years old. Their lifespan in the wild is approximately 20 years.
This beloved bird holds a special place in American history and culture. As our nation’s symbol, bald eagles appear on many official seals, flags, stamps, and more. But this iconic species nearly became extinct due to hunting, habitat loss, and widespread use of the pesticide DDT. Following federal protection efforts in the 1970s, bald eagle populations have substantially recovered. They can now be found in each of the lower 48 states. Sightings in Virginia have become relatively common again.
2. Golden Eagle
The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is North America’s largest predatory bird. While less numerous than bald eagles, golden eagles have a widespread distribution across the northern hemisphere. Approximately 5,748 pairs were estimated across the western United States during the last survey in 2014. A small population of around 20 breeding pairs can be found scattered across the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia.
Golden eagles are massive raptors weighing from 7 to 15 pounds, with wingspans stretching up to 7 feet. As the name suggests, their plumage is mostly a tawny brown with golden highlights on the back of their neck and head. Juveniles have white underside patches that disappear by adulthood.
These powerful predators utilize speed and strength to hunt medium and large-sized mammals. Primary prey includes jackrabbits, marmots, prairie dogs, and young deer. Birds such as grouse are also regularly taken. When needed, golden eagles will scavenge carrion as well.
Similar to bald eagles, golden eagles have raptor feet with sharp talons to grip prey. They also share the behavior of constructing huge nests high up on cliffs or in large trees. Breeding pairs return to nesting sites year after year, adding new material until the nest grows enormous.
Courtship involves elaborate aerial displays over breeding territory. Once paired, mates are believed to mate for life. In late winter or early spring, females lay up to 4 eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs and tend to the young. After about 10 weeks, eaglets take their first flight from the nest, but remain dependent on their parents for another 6 to 11 weeks.
Golden eagles are highly sensitive to disturbance, particularly during the breeding season. Remaining populations in the Appalachian Mountains benefit from large remote tracts of public lands. These include parks and forests managed by agencies like the U.S. Forest Service. Careful land stewardship and conservation measures are imperative for protecting golden eagles in Virginia.
Though they are less numerous in Virginia, sightings of golden eagles still occur each year. Both bald and golden eagles represent the regal splendor of North America’s birds of prey. As apex predators, their presence indicates an ecosystem rich in biodiversity. With proper management, these iconic raptors will continue epitomizing the symbol of wildlife in the United States for generations to come.