South Dakota
Birds and Birding
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Bald Eagle

Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Length: 34 - 43 inches Wingspan: 6 - 8 feet Seasonality: All Seasons
ID Keys: White head and neck, white tail, dark brown body on matures.  Juveniles mottled without trademark white head and tail.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalusThe national bird of the U.S. was seriously endangered by the 1970s due to the effects of DDT and other pesticides. It has made a gradual comeback since DDT was bannd, with populations rebounding strongly since the 1970s.  In June of 2007, a milestone was reached when the Bald Eagle was officially removed from the Endangered Species list. Bald Eagles can often be found around open water in the winter, including around the Big Sioux River near Sioux Falls.

Habitat: Typically near rivers or large lakes.  Generally found around water, but can be found in open dry country, particularly during migration. 

Diet: Mostly fish when available.  When fish are scarce, may eat birds (ducks, coots, others) or mammals (rabbits, muskrats, others). Very opportunistic, often feeds on carrion or steals fish from other birds, such as Osprey.

Behavior: While Bald Eagles will sometimes steal prey items from other birds, or feed on carrion, they also can be powerful hunters. 

Nesting: Rare breeder in various parts of the state.  The nest of a bald eagle is a massive mound of sticks, built in a tree or on a cliff, or sometimes on the ground on island habitats.  The female usually lays 2 eggs, and both parents help to incubate the eggs.  When the eggs hatch, both parents help to feed the young, but one parent typically stays with the young for the first 2 weeks.  The young fledge at about 11 weeks.

Breeding map: Breeding bird survey map

Song: Both sexes utter gull-like squealing cackle of kleek-kik-ik-ik-ik or lower kak-kak-kak.

Migrations: Some coastal populations are permanent residents, but birds in the interior of the country are generally migratory.  Winters throughout the U.S., many birds summer in Canada.

Status: The Bald Eagle has greatly expanded in numbers since the 1970s. They are found across an extremely large geographic area and have become relatively common in some areas even outside of Alaska and Canada.  The IUCN now lists the Bald Eagle as a species of "Least Concern".

Similar Species: Juvenile similar to Golden EagleAdult unmistakable in most of U.S. range, although rarely the Steller's Sea-Eagle or White-tailed Eagle have been found in North America, and could be confused with a Bald Eagle if not seen well. 

South Dakota "Hotspot": Winter time below the Missouri River dams is great for finding concentrations of Bald Eagles.  Directly below Gavin's Point Dam has always been great for me.  There's one cottonwood tree on the south side of the dam (actually in Nebraska) that almost without fail holds an eagle in the winter (I've seen up to 8 at one time in this one tree!).  Just cross the dam to the Nebraska side.  The road will turn to the east.  Just past the visitor entrance to the dam is a fence you'll drive past.  The Cottonwood tree immediately on the left is where you'll likely see one or more Bald Eagles in the winter.  Anywhere near the dam (and open water) is great in winter, though.  Note that at least two nests are also found along the Big Sioux River within a few miles of Sioux Falls.

Further Information: 1) USGS Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter, Bald Eagle

2) Cornell University's "All About Birds - Bald Eagle"

3) Bald Eagle

Photo Information: December 15th, 2002 -- Below Gavins Point Dam -- Terry L. Sohl

Additional Photos: Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Bald Eagle photos.


Cllick on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Bald Eagle Range Map
South Dakota Status: Uncommon in migration, summer, and winter throughout the state.  However, they  are locally common below the Missouri River dams in winter. Nesting within the state is increasingly reported, with active nests even within a few miles of Sioux Falls.