Species On The Move

As climate change impacts habitats around the world, species are on the move, trying to adapt — and survive.


  • Audubon

About This Species

The Bald Eagle was chosen in 1782 as the symbol of the United States for its strength and majesty. It is a North American bird and isn't actually bald—its head is covered in white feathers. The raptors are among the largest birds in North America, their wingspans reaching around six and a half feet and they can weigh up to 14 pounds. They are thought to mate for life, and they are playful. They can be spotted tossing sticks in mid-air.

The Bald Eagle

This American icon has already been through a lot. (Credit: Wikimedia user AWWE83)

In the summer, Bald Eagles live in the northernmost regions of the continent. In the winter, they migrate to the lower 48 states, where they can be found primarily near lakes, reservoirs, rivers, marshes and coasts. 

Bald Eagles are sociable birds—but not during breeding season, when they are highly territorial. Though they will eat birds and mammals, they are partial to carrion and fish—particularly when it has been caught by another bird. This hunting tactic has earned the bird a bad reputation in some people's eyes, most notably Benjamin Franklin, who called the bald eagle "a rank coward" who is "of bad moral character" and "does not get his living honestly." (Franklin felt the turkey would have been the more majestic choice.)

Conservation Status

Though the Bald Eagle was chosen as a national symbol in part due to its strength, its survival was once in jeopardy. Pesticides and hunting decimated the Bald Eagle population in the 20th century. But after DDT was banned in 1972, the species bounced back. In 2007, Bald Eagles were removed from the Endangered Species List.

While the species is undoubtedly doing better, a recent study found it is already being impacted by climate change. The study examined the nesting habits of Bald Eagles along Michigan's shorelines and rivers, observing that as temperatures rise and ice on the Great Lakes declines, the birds are nesting earlier and earlier. Since 1961, when the Bald Eagles of Michigan were first studied, the birds' nesting has shifted six weeks earlier, from mid-June to early May.

With decreased ice cover, the birds are able to access foraging areas earlier, which the researchers believe may be leading to earlier nesting. This increased foraging time may lead to increased exposure to contaminants, meaning that the threat that almost wiped them out once may again become their undoing.

Looking Forward

As climate change progresses, the Audubon Society's climate model projects that Bald Eagles will have just 26 percent of their current summer range by 2080. It is possible that the birds will adapt and reclaim summer terrain as new areas become hospitable, but it isn't known whether the birds will be able to find the food and habitat they need to survive.

The majestic Bald Eagle

The majestic Bald Eagle (Credit: Flickr user andrewngo1760)

Since the eagles live across a wide swath of North America, local populations will experience different impacts from climate change. One study that looked at the Bald Eagles around Puget Sound in Washington state found that long-term climate change impacts like changes in air temperatures, wind velocity, cloud cover, and precipitation could lead to a 11-14 percent decline in the birds' access to salmon carcasses by 2050. Because salmon is a key food source, this loss could cause the birds to seek out other prey or move to find a more habitable home. 

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