Bald eagles wait years for their telltale white feathers

I was perusing through a local antique shop lately when I came across a pile of Field & Stream magazines from the 50s, 60s and 70s. So I sat on the carpet, surrounded by china sets and dusty books, and leafed through a few of the outdoorsy publications.

In one of the magazines, I came across an educational piece on bald eagles, and in it, I learned that bald eagles don’t get white feathers on their head until they reach about 5 years of age. I was a bit surprised. I’d never heard of such a thing, so I double checked with a more recent source.

As usual, I turned to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which has a great online database, and indeed, it’s true! Young bald eagles have mostly dark heads and tails. Their brown wings and bodies have some white splotches here and there, but for the most part, they’re dark until they attain their adult plumage, which takes about five years.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki Young bald eagle, June 20, 2014, Penobscot River near Veazie Dam site.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
Young bald eagle, June 20, 2014, Penobscot River near Veazie Dam site.

I was reminded of this revelation the other day when I spotted a juvenile bald eagle while rafting down the Penobscot River with a team of researchers from the University of Maine. Actually, the rafting guide, Arthur, spotted the eagle; it was perched on a boom island near the old Veazie Dam site. And at first, most of the people in the raft didn’t think it was an eagle because it didn’t have a white head. Well, Arthur knew better, and so did I, thanks to Field & Stream.

Naturally, I fumbled for my 300mm lens and quickly took some photos as we floated by the boom island. The eagle stared at us as cool as a cucumber and remained on his perch, fishing no doubt.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki An adult bald eagle in a tree near the Penobscot River on June 20, 2014.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
An adult bald eagle in a tree near the Penobscot River on June 20, 2014.

We saw at least four bald eagles on that rafting trip, but that was the only young eagle; the rest had adult plumage. We watched two fly overhead and perch in tall evergreens beside the river as we drifted downstream; and just before we set ashore in Brewer, we watched an osprey harass an adult bald eagle while flying. It was quite a site, and I’m glad to see so many of the beautiful raptors between Old Town and Brewer.

 

 

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Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.