What Do Bald Eagles Eat in the Winter?

what do bald eagles eat in winter

When a harsh winter comes, many birds will need to change their hunting and eating habits. Bald eagles are no different and need to adapt to survive. In fact, during wintertime, bald eagles operate more as scavengers than hunters due to the environmental change.  need to change what they eat in winter, but what exactly is on their diet?  

What do bald eagles eat in winter? In winter bald eagles will eat fish if they can catch them. They will also eat roadkill, small animals trapped in ice, dead animals who have succumbed to the cold, carcasses left by hunters, and any small mammals or rodents they can catch during wintertime.

The National Audubon Society simplify the answer to what bald eagles eat in winter even further, by just saying fish. Of course, that is an oversimplification as a bald eagle will be opportunistic and eat whatever food is available during a cold winter.

What do bald eagles eat in the winter
Bald eagles will try to find a fish supply to eat from in winter (Credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/eagle-teaching-fishing-winter-1958319/)

Due to the cold weather and hibernation of smaller animals, a bald eagle’s wintertime diet will be varied due to necessity. 

According to the National Eagle Center, bald eagles commonly eat fish, other birds, and small animals, like squirrels, prairie dogs, rabbits, and raccoons. Bald eagles in coastal areas will eat mostly fish, while eagles further inland ill tend to eat more rodents and other small mammals.

However, as winter approaches, they might not have this luxury. Some online commenters have even reported seeing bald eagles eat from fish hatcheries during winter when struggling to find an alternate food source. 

The winter eating habit of bald eagles

Bald eagles, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, can eat as much as a third of their own weight daily. As the bald eagle can weigh as much as 14 pounds, they need a lot of food. Fortunately, bald eagles do not need to eat every day which is a bonus in winter when food can be harder to find. 

Bald eagles have a very small stomach, about the size of a walnut. They are equipped with another way to store food, however. They have a crop, a storage pouch under their chin that can store as much as 3 or 4 pounds of food for a day or two.

This means bald eagles can fill up on a large catch, then eat over the course of a couple of days during a cold winter.

Although bald eagles are quite large, with a wingspan of up to six feet, they cannot carry a large amount of weight in the air. When an eagle catches a large fish, more than a pound or two, the eagle will swim to shore with the fish in its mouth, using its wings to propel itself across the water. 

Bald eagles are powerful hunters. However, they are quite willing to enjoy an easy meal too which is why they will often excel in finding alternative food source during winter. 

Bald eagles often steal the catches of other birds. They will observe a smaller bird of prey, a hawk or falcon for example, or another bald eagle, pursuing and catching a meal, then steal the meal by driving the other bird away. 

Bald eagles also eat carrion. When eagles live near a major highway, roadkill carrion can be a large part of their diet. They are also known to eat dead deer in the forest, but won’t have the strength to pick up and carry one.

roadkill for bald eagles to eat in winter
Roadkill will be more appetizing to bald eagles in winter months (Credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/squirrel-dead-body-dead-animal-242438/)

During winter, this scavenger aspect of their nature will come into its own as they look for dead animals, food left out, and possibly even waste bins to find something to eat in winter. 

What is a bald eagle’s favorite food in winter?

If you are considering helping bald eagles survive in winter and want to feed them, then one way of attracting them to your yard, is to leave out a favorite food. But what should you leave them to eat in winter? 

Well, you could try what many have said is a bald eagle’s favorite food of bald eagles, salmon. Salmon is a large and meaty fish, with lots of omega 3 fatty acids. They provide both energy and body fast for bald eagles, keeping them warm and active in the winter cold.

Do bald eagles eat cats?

Unfortunately, yes, bald eagles will eat a cat, chicken, or even a small dog if they are available during winter. Bald eagles are powerful hunters, with 8 sharp talons to grab their prey. Their keen eyesight allows them to see the movement of prey from as far away as 3 miles. 

This means that our beloved pets can become targets for bald eagles. When living in an area close to these large birds of prey, we would be wise to defend our pets.

Where do bald eagles live in the winter?

In wintertime, bald eagles can be found throughout North America. Most birds in the far north do migrate south into the northern United States. However, some hardy birds winter over in Alaska and Northern Canada. 

Bald eagles from the Southern United States seldom migrate as the weather already supports the well with a steady food supply.

Outside of the winter months, bald eagles can be seen throughout North America. Eagles who spend the summers far north in Alaska and Northern Canada tend to migrate south to the northern United States in the wintertime. 

That migration allows them access to larger food supplies during the winter. Bald eagles in the southern part of the United States and Mexico do not migrate as they already have a ready food supply. 

However, northern bald eagles are much larger, up to 10 to 14 pounds for an adult female and 8 to 12 pounds for a male. 

Bald eagles from Florida, in comparison, will weigh closer to 6 to 8 pounds. That difference may be due to a difference in diet as northern birds tend to eat fish and mammals with higher fat content. 

What do bald eagles look like?

Most people readily recognize an adult bald eagle as it is our national symbol. Its distinctive white head and dark body set it apart from other birds. In fact, it was named for its white head. The original english word, ‘baldo’, meant white, so the baldo eagle was the white-headed eagle. 

bald eagle
The classic look of a bald eagle (Image licensed via Storyblocks.com)

Over time, the name became bald eagle, leaving some confusion about whether the bird has plumage on its head. When seen in person, the white head feathers glisten in the sun, leaving little doubt of their presence.

Adult males and females share the same coloring. Females can be distinguished from males because they tend to be larger than the males. Young birds develop that distinctive coloring during their first 5 years. 

As hatchlings, they are uniformly dark in color. Gradually, they grow white feathers over much of their bodies, becoming a mottled black and white. A juvenile bald eagle certainly appears to be some other specie!

By the time they are five years old, their coloring sorts out, and they become the beautiful bird that we recognize as the bald eagle with a white head.

Do bald eagles mate for life?

Bald eagles do not mate mate for life. They seem to be more attached to their nesting site than their mate. Both male and female bald eagles will return to a previous nest if they successfully raised chicks there in the past. If both male and female return, they are likely to mate together again. 

However, if one bird fails to return, the other bird will simply find a new mate, often continuing to use the same nest. It seems, then, that the focus is on raising chicks successfully, not on building a lifetime partnership.

How can I see a bald eagle in the wild?

Seeing a bald eagle live in the wild is a thrill! Professional guide companies in the Pacific Northwest offer float trips down many of the salmon-bearing rivers to see these magnificent birds in their natural habitat. These trips are typically 3 hours long. Adults and children alike will enjoy this nature experience.

Are bald eagles an endangered species?

Great news! Bald eagles are no longer endangered. In the 1960s and 1970s, use of the pesticide DDT caused the shells of bald eagle eggs to become thin and fragile. Few chicks survived to hatching. 

That lead to a plummet in the population of bald eagles. After DDT was banned in 1976, populations slowly recovered. Bald eagles were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007. They continue to enjoy some protection, however from the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.


I will never forget the experience of floating the Skagit River in Washington State! Over the course of 3 hours, I observed hundreds of bald eagles flying high, perching, and, of course, eating. 

These magnificent birds migrate to coastal waters in wintertime to take advantage of migratory fish runs, especially salmon. 

Floating western Washington rivers offered an opportunity to see our national bird in its natural environment and learn a great deal about their habits – including what bald eagles like to eat in winter months.

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Image in header via https://pixabay.com/photos/bald-eagle-mountains-nature-bird-3419485/

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