Both North American eagle species, the Bald and the Golden, occur in New Jersey. Both species regularly migrate through the state and Bald Eagles winter and breed here.
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Our national emblem, the Bald Eagle is familiar to nearly everyone. The adult bird, with its snowy white head and tail and contrasting dark brown body, is unmistakable. The term “Bald” as used here means white, rather than featherless; and its scientific name leucocephalus means “white head.” The immature Bald Eagle, however, lacks the distinctive white markings of the adult. The young bird is an overall brown color for several years before its head and tail become pure white; for this reason it can be mistaken for a Golden Eagle.
A large bird, measuring approximately three feet high with a wingspan of up to 7!/2 feet, this eagle is an efficient hunter and also a scavenger. It feeds primarily on fish and waterfowl which it catches alive, but will readily eat carrion when available.
Although a well-known symbol, the Bald Eagle was once rarely seen in our state. During the mid 20th century, its population across North America drastically declined, primarily due to DDT poisoning and loss of nesting habitat. Since the banning of DDT in 1972 and concerted efforts to protect breeding areas, Bald Eagle populations have steadily increased. New Jersey’s breeding population, although still considered endangered, has increased from one pair in the 1980’s to 22 known pairs in 1999.
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
The Golden Eagle is a huge bird weighing up to thirteen pounds, measuring approximately three feet in length, with a wingspan of 6M to T/2 feet. The entire bird appears dark brown in color, but at closer view a gold wash of feathers on the back of its neck and head can be seen -hence the common name. Young birds can be distinguished from adults by their white-based tail feathers and white patches in their wings.
Golden Eagles range across the entire Northern Hemisphere and in North America they are most common in the west. Their large stick nests are usually constructed on high, inaccessible cliff ledges in remote mountainous areas. The same nest site, or eyrie, may be used year after year.
These large and powerful birds hunt while flying, dropping suddenly on prey which they have surprised in the open. Their diet is varied but consists mainly of rabbits and other small mammals.
Although primarily a western species, some Golden Eagles do breed in eastern Canada, northern New England, and a few in New York state. The birds observed in New Jersey during migrations are from this eastern population.