The courtship ritual of bald eagles is a stunning spectacle. They perform a series of mid-air chases, cartwheels and barrel rolls, eventually flying to great heights where they lock talons and free fall toward the earth in a conjoined death spiral, breaking apart just before hitting the ground—testing the fitness and trustworthiness of the potential mate.
Although rarely seen or captured on camera, the aerial mating ritual marks the beginning of the winter nesting season. “Eagles are one of the few animals in general that have a wintertime nesting season,” says Brittany Dodge, naturalist at The Ford Plantation. They mate for life and reuse the same nest year after year unless the nest continuously fails or falls apart or their mate dies.
The male and female partnership is quite balanced. Together they build the nest, take turns keeping the eggs warm and care for the babies once they’re born. However, for the other six months of the year, the couple temporarily split and live as solitary creatures. “This is why their marriage works so well,” jokes Dodge.
The bald eagle was a familiar sight in southeast Georgia until the 1950s when the population started to dwindle. By 1970, there was only one known successful bald eagle nest in Georgia, which was located on St. Catherine’s Island. For the next 10 years, the bald eagle would be considered a rare and transient winter resident, with no other known nests in the state.
A deep, national concern for the bald eagle grew in the following decade. It was frightening to imagine that our national symbol could die off in a matter of years. Scientists eventually traced the dwindling numbers to the chemical DDT used in pesticides. The chemical would run into rivers and streams, which would pass to the fish and then to the eagles that fed on them, thinning their egg shells so nestlings couldn’t hatch.
The United States outlawed DDT in 1972 and passed the federal Endangered Species Act in 1973. In turn, Georgia passed the Endangered Wildlife Act that same year, requiring the protection of rare animal species. The bald eagle was listed on Georgia’s Protected Wildlife List as a critically endangered species. With these efforts, along with monitoring nests and performing helicopter surveys and tagging birds, the numbers slowly started to improve.
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reveals that bald eagle nesting remains strong and continues to grow in Georgia. DNR surveys conducted in 2017 documented a record 218 nests, of which 142 were successful (yielding at least one nestling or “eaglet”). In 2020, surveys noted 71 occupied nests in the state’s coastal region.
“Eagles are one of the greatest conservation success stories of our generation,” says Dodge. The bald eagle is still listed as threatened under Georgia’s Endangered Wildlife Act, and it is protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but it was officially removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species in 2007. “Even though their population has rebounded, it’s still not quite what it could be,” says Dodge.
Two bald eagle nesting pairs have been living on The Ford Plantation for many years. One pair had a long-time nest in a pine tree located on a small island in the Ogeechee River just across from Ford’s Lake Clara Dike Trail. Dodge explains that the tree started to die off a couple of years ago, and the eagles relocated their nest just off the property but still within view. The pair have been spotted by Ford Island, the large wildlife-managed area on the Ford property. “They have been hanging out in the old osprey nests and in the snags of the dead trees,” says Dodge.
The second nesting pair is visible from the 8th hole on the golf course. Lightning struck their tree last year, and the eagles were forced to rebuild their nest. Nest building can begin one to three months before mating. It is constructed of interwoven sticks and lined with softer materials, such as grass, corn stalks and feathers, and it is typically located in forested areas near water. The average bald eagle nest is four to five feet in diameter, two to four feet deep and literally weighs a ton. However, the largest bald eagle nest on record was located in St. Petersburg, Florida; it was a whopping 9.5 feet in diameter, 20 feet deep and weighed nearly three tons.
The female bald eagle lays her clutch—usually one to three eggs—about five to 10 days after mating. The incubation time is around 35 days, and 10-12 weeks after hatching, the young make their first attempts at flight. It takes three to five years for a bald eagle to reach sexual maturity; this is also when they exhibit the white head and tail feathers. Before that, “they kind of look like vultures,” says Dodge.
While the national symbol is described as magnificent and stately, the bald eagle call leaves much to be desired, so much so that it often gets a “voice-over” in the media. The resounding “CAW” we associate with the bald eagle actually belongs to the red-tail hawk, whereas the bald eagle sounds closer to a seagull. “Americans don’t want to have some sissy little bird sound as our national bird,” jokes Dodge. “The bald eagle has a very high-pitched cheep.”
Vocals aside, bald eagles are unarguably awe-inspiring. From entering life-long relationships to beating the odds of extinction, nesting pairs build their home and families, and—since some nests have remained in use for more than 30 years—become meaningful members of the community that surrounds them. Here’s to hoping for even more residents in the future.
If you find an active eagle nest, report its location to Dr. Bob Sargent, DNR survey leader at email@example.com and, in compliance with federal guidelines, remember to stay at least 330 feet away from an active eagle nest.