Eagles In Southwest Florida

Question: I think I saw a bald eagle flying over US41 in Bonita Springs. Is this possible?

Answer: Southwest Florida is home to many bald eagles. However, the bald eagles in the area (the Southern Bald Eagle) are much smaller than northern eagles. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has classified the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) as a Threatened Species. Without proper protection, the bald eagle could become endangered. In fact, Florida’s nesting population constitutes over eighty percent of the entire bald eagle population in the southeastern United States. Just one more reason to protect habitats for these species.

The Southern Bald Eagle usually weighs eight to ten pounds and has a wingspan of six to seven feet. The bald eagle is considered a raptor and females are larger than males. An adult eagle has a white head and tail, while their bodies are dark brown. Their eyes, bill, and feet are a distinct yellow. Young eagles do not look like the adults. Most are mottled (brown with scattered white feathers) and do not yet have the distinct white feathers on their heads and tails. Although the juveniles tend to have a gray bill, they can still be recognized by their yellow feet.

Bald eagles prefer fish as their main staple but they will eat small mammals and carrion on occasion. Eagles have been reported along roadsides feeding on road-kill alongside vultures. The nesting season has recently ended. Eagles nest from October 1st to May 15th and return to the same site each year. Eagles mate for life and return to Florida in late September or early October. One to three eggs are laid between late November and early January. The young hatch in about thirty-three days and leave the nest in about twelve weeks. Young birds can travel as far north as Canada and will return to nest at four to five years of age. Mates are found in the area where they originally hatched. As with most birds, mortality is probably high for juveniles, however there is no research to back this up.

The main threat to bald eagles is the loss of nesting habitat due to development. There are established guidelines for protective zones around eagle nests with certain restrictions imposed to ensure the continued success of those sites. Many cities such as Cape Coral have also enacted ordinances to protect this bird. If you are planning to build and believe your property falls within a nesting zone, call your local government first. This should be done prior to filing a building permit or obtaining a construction loan.

Additional information on the study of suburban and rural eagle nesting successes can be found at http://wld.fwc.state.fl.us/eagle/. If you see a sick or injured eagle, please report it to the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (C.R.O.W.) at 472-3644 or in Cape Coral call 574-0552. Malicious destruction of bald eagle nesting sites or harassment of these birds should be reported to Wildlife Alert at 1-800-282-8002 or at the aforementioned number in Cape Coral.

It is everyone’s responsibility to protect the natural resources in this area. The benefits of biodiversity are hard to quantify. However, aesthetics, education, recreation, and free ecological services are just a few of the benefits of maintaining a healthy population of numerous species. Although it is not commonplace to see a bald eagle here in Southwest Florida, there are still a good number of these graceful birds that nest here. Maintaining habitat to ensure the young return here to nest is critical. This will ensure the longevity of these creatures. As always, there has to be a healthy balance between development and conservation because without both, our environment would not be as rich as it is.


Shannon L. Ruby is the Natural Resources/Agriculture Agent with the University of Florida/IFAS and Lee County Extension Service. To submit questions, call 461-7515 between 9am and 4pm or send questions to 3406 Palm Beach Blvd. Fort Myers, FL 33916-3736 or via e-mail at rubys@leegov.com.