By Jim Lukens, Idaho Department of Fish and Game
The chill of February can be a harsh time for birds, but that is precisely the time local bald eagles begin nesting.
As early as January, mated pairs can be seen repairing nests or whirling through the air in courtship flight. Bald eagles reach sexual maturity at around four or five years of age. They mate for life, but when one dies, the survivor readily accepts a new mate.
One to three eggs are laid in early March and are incubated for about 35 days.
Once the eggs hatch, the female's attention focuses on the young eaglets, while the male provides the majority of food needed by the rapidly growing chicks.
From helpless, bobble-headed, down-covered hatchlings, eaglets can eventually add one pound to their body weight every four or five days. At about five weeks, dark brown juvenile feathers begin poking through the nestling's downy coat. At eight weeks, with the parents hunting almost continuously to feed them, the eaglets are stretching and exercising their wings, occasionally getting airborne in an afternoon gust. At 10 to 13 weeks after hatching, the eaglets are adult size, fully feathered, and capable of flight.
Getting the fledglings on the wing can take some persuasion by the parents, who will entice the young off the nest with tasty morsels, such as a half-eaten muskrat, cottontail or fish.
Young eagles will remain near the nest for another four to five weeks, honing their hunting and flying skills, which are developed by trial and error rather than learning from adults. After this phase, young eagles embark on a prolonged period of great exploration lasting up to four years, after which they may or may not return to their natal territory to breed.
With high year-to-year survival, a lifespan reaching up to 28 years in the wild, and now 18 nesting pairs in Salmon Region, the future looks promising for our national bird - the bald eagle.