Species Spotlight: The Bald Eagle, More Than a Symbol

Aug 21, 2023 | MSHCP, Species

For most of the 20th century, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) lived under a perpetual threat of extinction. Habitat destruction, illegal shooting, and insecticides had decimated the bald eagle population in the 1900s. In 1940, the United States enacted The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act as a response to the alarming decline of both eagle species. The law aimed to conserve and protect bald eagles and golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) – two iconic bird species that hold cultural, ecological, and symbolic significance.

When the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) was signed into law, the bill permanently altered the future of endangered and threatened species like the bald eagle teetering on the brink of extinction. The ESA provided habitat protection – facilitating population recovery and making the bald eagle a symbol of the transformative power of conservation. In 2007, after spending decades on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s threatened or endangered species list, the bald eagle population had rebounded to a point where protection under the ESA was no longer necessary, and the bird was officially delisted.

The MSHCP compliments the ESA by affording additional habitat protection for the bald eagle and 145 other native animal and plant species in western Riverside County. Although the bald eagle’s presence within the MSHCP is predominantly as a winter visitor, there are occasional appearances in the summer by birds lingering at wintering sites. The species heavily favors open bodies of water like rivers, swamps, and large lakes and can be spotted near Prado Dam, Lake Skinner, Lake Mathews, and Lake Perris.

With an impressive average wingspan of 6 to 8 feet and weighing up to 14 pounds, bald eagles are large but agile raptors. Naturally, the bird’s affinity for water makes fish a large portion of the bird’s typical diet. However, many other types of prey are also taken, including waterfowl and small mammals – swooping down from hunting perches or soaring flight to pluck fish from the water with their sharp talons.

Bald eagles are solitary but monogamous and form lifelong pairs. They will spend winters and migrations alone but maintain the same breeding pair year after year, often returning to the same nest. Breeding usually occurs from February through July in open areas, with nesting occurring in large trees usually within 1 mile of water. The species can live nearly 30 years in the wild and longer in captivity.

The MSHCP has identified 15,860 acres of potential habitat for conservation, including open bodies of water and riparian habitat within the Prado Basin and Santa Ana River. The bald eagle is more than just the national symbol – it exemplifies an American conservation success story. Its road to recovery is an example of why Habitat Conservation Plans like the MSHCP are crucial for protecting biodiversity and sensitive habitats.