Bald Eagles: Your Friendly Neighborhood Apex Predators

When I first came to Seattle from the East Coast in September of 2017, I didn’t pay much attention to birds. I was impressed by the plant life right away — abundant moss, sword ferns, Douglas firs, big leaf maples, and red cedars everywhere. (I also particularly enjoyed seeing monkey puzzle trees, but they’re non-native and Marie thinks they’re ugly). I called home one day in the fall of 2017 and told my parents about how different the trees are in Seattle compared to Maryland or Philadelphia. My parents asked me if I noticed any different animals, and I believe I said something like, “It’s basically nothing but crows and gulls here.”

It’s funny to look back at that conversation. I guess if you’re not looking you won’t see much. A few months later, in early 2018, I went for a run and was caught off guard when I saw these magnificent beasts in a cedar tree along the water next to Husky Stadium:

Bald eagles in a cedar tree by Husky Stadium, circa April 2018

I was blown away. I had only seen bald eagles a few times in my life, and here were two in a tree right next to campus! In the middle of Seattle! I saw the eagles again in the same tree on the way back at the end of my run. I took the picture above several days later, and over the ensuing weeks, I returned to the same area frequently, and I sometimes saw as many as four bald eagles there! As I learned more about eagles, I realized that I was seeing the same four bald eagles, and they all live — hunt, nest, raise chicks, and vie for territory — within a mile of that tree. They aren’t exotic visitors that were blown off course; hundreds of bald eagles live in Washington, several of which live with us in Seattle!

In the late 1700s, over 9,000 bald eagle pairs lived in Washington State, but by 1950, bald eagles had been virtually eradicated from the US outside of Florida and Alaska. The reasons for this dramatic near-extinction are complex, and include habitat loss, illegal shooting, and DDT. Bald eagles were subsequently placed on the endangered species list. It has taken a concerted effort and an electorate that is conscientious about local wildlife to bring those numbers up to where they are now: there were about 100 breeding pairs in Washington State in the 1970s and 840 by 2005 (see data here and here). Bald eagles are definitely not unique to Washington State. There are over 1000 pairs in Minnesota and Florida, and Maryland – my home state – has around 300 breeding pairs. My parents recently found a bald eagle nest site on the Potomac River just a few miles from my childhood home, and they later learned that this site has been known to host eagles since the 1980s. But here in Seattle, I can sometimes see soaring eagles from my apartment window.

Of the many breeding pairs that live in Seattle, three pairs of eagles live around Union Bay. Each pair has its own territory. Their nests make a triangle around the bay, with each side of the triangle being about 1 mile long. Larry Hubbell has names for all six of the eagles, and he’s written about Monty and Marsha’s troubles last year when their nest fell down after a branch in their cottonwood tree broke, as well as their success so far this year as they have rebuilt their nest and now have a newly-hatched eaglet. Their nest is about 1000 feet from where I took the photo above.

While Monty, Marsha, Talia, Russ, Eva, and Albert are the resident eagles, every once in a while, I’ll see some roving gangs passing through.

Five young bald eagles pass through resident eagles’ territory in the Washington Park Arboretum on February 1, 2020.

Young eagles have a mixture of white, brownish, and black feathers, and don’t attain their crisp white head feathers with a sharp border at the neck until they are about 5 years old. The mottling changes slowly over time, so the coloration can be used to estimate age. See how bald eagles change color over time at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

Normally, when a stranger eagle wanders into a nesting pair’s air space, they are met with hostility. Eagles are territorial, and the reason I kept seeing eagles right next to Husky Stadium is because this is the boundary between Monty and Marsha’s territory to the south and Talia and Russ’ territory to the north. The four eagles frequently perch in trees by the stadium to patrol their borders. When they do so, they often make a lot of noise — eagles have a peculiar, rather unintimidating call, which you can listen to here. I guess the other eagles must think it’s intimidating, though. Eagles tend to be especially aggressive toward out-of-towners, but when adolescent eagles show up in gangs (like the five drifters in the photo above), the residents can’t do much. You kids get off my lawn! Juvenile delinquents!

As I’ve watched these individual birds over time, they seem less like mindless animals that merely follow their instincts, and more like thinking, feeling creatures with goals and plans who can learn from their mistakes and invent strategies to solve their problems. Monty and Marsha, the newest eagle residents of the Union Bay area, have chosen an optimal nest location for hunting, but their proximity to the other eagles presents a challenge which they have met by regularly enforcing their territorial boundary with Talia and Russ. I’ve become interested in watching, learning about, and trying to understand their behaviors. These bald eagles sparked my fascination with the bird world, and I hope to share more about my other bird neighbors in future posts.