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Bald Eagles

Kentucky's Bald Eagles

The History of Kentucky’s Breeding Population

Very little pre-settlement information exists for bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) populations in Kentucky. Most historic records are from the far western part of the state, with some observations further east along the Ohio River floodplain. Widespread declines in the mid-1900’s resulted in the bald eagle vanishing as a breeding bird in Kentucky during the 1960’s.

After the banning of DDT in 1972 (US) and a nationwide re-introduction effort in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the number of bald eagle nesting territories in Kentucky has steadily increased (Table 1). Due to the high concentration of suitable habitat, the majority of eagle nests are located in western Kentucky. However, reports of bald eagles during the breeding season from central and eastern Kentucky are becoming increasingly common. The creation of large reservoirs statewide has provided habitat that was not available to eagles historically. Large rivers, creeks and wetlands provide additional nesting opportunities.

The Bald Eagle Has Been Delisted!

Kentucky’s population of bald eagles met criteria set by the Southeast Bald Eagle Recovery Team for removal of the species from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. Hence, the species was officially delisted in August of 2007. However, bald eagles still remain protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. To ensure the species continues to succeed, National Bald Eagle Management Guidelines and a Post-delisting Monitoring Plan have been developed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and are available via the internet at

Eagle Monitoring in Kentucky

Eagle populations are currently monitored twice a year. In January, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), in cooperation with other federal and state agencies and local volunteers, survey as many as 20 routes for wintering eagles. These data are submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a national survey. Midwinter Eagle Survey
A view of a bald eagle nest from the helicopter during an annual nesting survey 

A view of a bald eagle nest from the helicopter during an annual nesting survey.
Photo by: Ray Stainfield

data are available via the internet at During the Midwinter Eagle Survey, 150-400 eagles are counted each year (Table 2).

To monitor Kentucky’s nesting population, KDFWR conducts aerial surveys of eagle nests (west of Frankfort) in March. Nests that cannot be covered during the aerial survey (e.g. eastern Kentucky) are checked in late winter or early spring by boat and by ground. Through early nesting season monitoring, the status of each nesting territory is defined as “occupied” or “unoccupied”. A territory is deemed “occupied” if it contains a nest which was recently built or maintained by eagles, adult birds are seen at a nest or there is evidence of reproduction (incubation, eggs or chicks observed) during the breeding season. Nest success is later determined by ground at selected locations by KDFWR staff, other agency personnel, and volunteers. The total number of “occupied nesting territories” is reported annually to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and these criteria are used regionally and nationally to measure population trends (Table 1). In Kentucky, bald eagles usually lay eggs during January-March, but will begin nest building and repair as early as October. Young usually fledge (leave the nest) April-July.

Table 1. Number of known eagle nesting territories in Kentucky since re-establishment 

Year Eagle Nesting Territories
1986 1
1990 6
2000 23
2010 84
2017 164

Eagle County Map
Figure 1 - Counties with known bald eagle nesting activity (gray).  Last updated 9-6-2017.

Midwestern Eagle Routes



Tracking Kentucky’s eagle population takes a tremendous amount of effort and would not be possible without the cooperation of several federal and state agencies, universities, private organizations, volunteers, and landowners. Their continued support is most appreciated.

Bald Eagle FAQ’s

Where can I find more information on bald eagles?

Information on life history (diet, lifespan, etc.) can be found at the USFWS eagle website:

How common is it to see a bald eagle in Kentucky?

Sightings of migrating and wintering eagles in Kentucky are becoming increasingly widespread. Bald eagles can be seen just about anywhere in Kentucky during the migration and winter season (September-March). Nonetheless, seeing a bald eagle is exciting every time!

Where are the best places to go to see a bald eagle in Kentucky?

The best time to go eagle-watching in Kentucky is the winter, when eagles gather in large numbers at areas with open water to fish. You’re likely to spot an eagle on a boat trip or hiking trip to any large reservoir or river in December-March. Look for them perched in trees on the lake or river edge, or watch for them soaring above the water. The Land Between the Lakes Area is a winter hot spot for eagles. Kentucky State Parks, in cooperation with KDFWR and the US Army Corps of Engineers hold Eagle Watch events at several state parks in western KY each January and February. These trips are a great way to view lots of eagles. More information on eagle watch weekends can be found at the Kentucky State Parks website.

I think I saw a bald eagle. Where can I find more information on identification?

See Bald Eagle Identification below

More information on bald eagle identification can be found at the following links:

I saw a bald eagle! Who should I report this information to?

Sightings of migrating and wintering eagles in Kentucky are becoming more common and widespread. Bald eagles can be seen just about anywhere in Kentucky during the migration and winter season (September-March). Carrion provides a good winter food source for eagles, away from open water. Sightings of wintering and migrating eagles do not need to be reported to KDFWR.

KDFWR tracks the location and productivity of all bald eagle nests in Kentucky. New nests are found every year. If you think you have discovered a new nest, please call our information number (1-800-858-1549) to report it. If a pair of adult bald eagles is seen in a local area for an extended period of time during the nesting season, there may be a nest nearby. Please let us know if you suspect bald eagle nesting activity in your area.

Do golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) occur in Kentucky?

Though uncommon in comparison to the bald eagle, golden eagles do migrate through and winter in Kentucky. There are no confirmed records of golden eagles nesting in Kentucky. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources participates in the Golden Eagle Working Group and the Appalachian Golden Eagle Camera Trapping Project.  More information:

Bald Eagle Identification

It takes a bald eagle 5 years to obtain its adult plumage (white head and tail, brown body).

Juvenile bald eagles have brown bodies and dark bills.

Juvenile bald eagle in nest
Photo by:  KDFWR

In the first five years of life, the immature bald eagle will go through a series of brown and white mottled plumages.

Immature bald eagle
Photo by:  David Roemer
 Adult bald eagles exhibit the distinctive white head and tail and dark brown body.  They have a yellow bill and yellow legs. 

Adult bald eagle
Photo by:  Tom Fusco
Several other species of birds can be mistaken for bald eagles. Some of the more commonly confused species are osprey, turkey vultures, black vultures and red-tailed hawks. See below for pictures of these species.

Since osprey also eat fish, they are often mistaken for young bald eagles.
However, they can be distinguished by their brown tails, white bodies and dark eyeline.
Photo by:  David Roemer

Turkey vulture
Turkey vultures are very common in Kentucky.
They can be recognized by their featherless, pink head and paler wing feathers.
Photo by:  Kathy Dennis

Black vulture
Notice the featherless, black head
and paler outer wing feathers.
Photo by:  Kathy Dennis 

Immature red-tailed hawk
Red-tailed hawks are common throughout Kentucky.
Immature red-tailed hawks are sometimes confused with young bald eagles
because their tail is brown.
Photo by:  Rachel Jenkins

More information on bald eagle identification can be found at the following links: