Bald Eagles


Bald Eagles in Kentucky

The History of Kentucky’s Bald Eagle 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, eagle nests are more numerous in western Kentucky.  However, Bald Eagle nests in 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!

The Bald Eagle was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species 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).  These documents are available at http://www.fws.gov/midwest/eagle.

Eagle Monitoring in Kentucky

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

To monitor Kentucky's nesting Bald Eagle population, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) conducted aerial and ground surveys of all known nests, statewide from 1986-2019 (Figure 1).  Kentucky's nesting Bald Eagle population grew at a rapid pace during recent years.  In fact, the number of occupied Bald Eagle territories jumped more than 400% from 43 in 2006, to 187 in 2019.

COVID-19 related restrictions led to a pause in Kentucky's Bald Eagle nest survey in 2020, and monitoring objectives were reevaluated that year.  Bald Eagles have shown a fantastic recovery and monitoring all known nests statewide required significant effort given the growing number of nests.  Considering limitations in staff time and funding, monitoring objectives were revised in 2020 to reduce the amount of time and effort spent monitoring Bald Eagles, while still maintaining a high quality dataset for the species.  Starting in 2021, a rotating regional subset of nests is monitored each year instead of monitoring of all nests statewide.  Details can be found in revised monitoring plan here.

To monitor Kentucky's nesting population, KDFWR conducts regional aerial surveys of eagle nests in March.  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.   

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.

Eagle populations are currently monitored twice a year.  Each January, KDFWR, in cooperation with federal agencies and local volunteers, conducts Midwinter Eagle Surveys (MES).  In the past, as many as 20 MES routes were surveyed as part of a national effort coordinated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and 150-400 eagles were counted in Kentucky each year (Table 2).  However, the national effort ended after the 2021 survey and going forward KDFWR will continue four MES routes in order to monitor the state's largest winter eagle populations. 

Midwinter Eagle Survey data (pre-2021) are available via the internet at http://ocid.nacse.org/nbii/eagles/.

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

Year Eagle Nesting Territories
19861
19906
200023
201084
2019
187

Eagle County Map
Figure 1 - Counties with known bald eagle nesting activity (gray).  Last updated 9-6-2020.


Midwestern Eagle Routes

 

Eagle Research in Kentucky

During 2010-2016, KDFWR used satellite telemetry to track the movements of several Bald Eagles from western Kentucky.  The results from that project can be found below:

Acknowledgements

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

How common is it to see a Bald Eagle in Kentucky?

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

I saw a Bald Eagle!  Who should I report this information to?

Sightings of Bald 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 individual eagles (not at a nest) do not need to be reported to KDFWR.

KDFWR tracks the location and productivity of Bald Eagle nests in Kentucky.  New nests are found every year.  If you think you have discovered a new nest, please call us or e-mail us at info.center@ky.gov (1-800-858-1549) to report it. 

I have a Bald Eagle nest on my property.  What should I do?

If you have not yet reported the nest to KDFWR, please call us or e-mail us at info.center@ky.gov (1-800-858-1549) to report it.  (Please be assured that we do not release locations of eagle nests to the public.) 

Having a Bald Eagle nest on your property does not mean you cannot continue to farm, hunt or otherwise use your property.  However, development or logging within 660 ft of the nest tree may require special coordination and the nest tree should not be cut down.  Feel free to contact us if you are a property owner with an eagle nest and have concerns about planning potentially disturbing activities near the nest.

How can I avoid disturbing Bald Eagles?

When watching eagles for enjoyment, please maintain a distance to avoid disrupting the birds' normal behavior.  A distance of 330 ft is recommended for avoiding disturbance to nesting Bald Eagles by human foot traffic.

The National Bald Eagle Management Guidelines are available to guide developers and landowners in avoiding disturbance to Bald Eagles.  This document can be found here: https://www.fws.gov/northeast/EcologicalServices/pdf/NationalBaldEagleManagementGuidelines.pdf

And more info can be found here: https://www.fws.gov/midwest/eagle/Nhistory/humanact.html

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 many eagles.  More information on eagle watch weekends can be found at the Kentucky State Parks website at: http://parks.ky.gov/wildlife-adventures/

We often get requests from wildlife watchers and photographers for eagle nest locations.  We do not release locations of eagle nests to the public.  This is for the privacy of the birds and the landowners that support them.

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

Please scroll down for more information on eagle identification (on this page).

Further information on Bald Eagle identification can be found at the following links.

Where can I find more information on Bald Eagles?

Information on life history (diet, lifespan, etc.) can be found at the USFWS eagle website: https://fws.gov/birds/management/managed-species/bald-and-golden-eagle-information.php

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 conducted a Golden Eagle Camera Trapping Project during 2012-2017 to document this species winter distribution in KY.  More information can be found below:

I found a dead eagle.  What should I do?

Please leave the bird where it is, take a picture, record a precise location and call us or e-mail us at info.center@ky.gov (1-800-858-1549) to report it.  

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.
 

Osprey
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: