There are two species of eagles resident in North America. The bald eagle and the golden eagle. The bald eagle is one of the animals most closely associated with the United States. With both birds in the top 5 largest North American birds, I wanted to show if eagles have any predators.
Eagles are apex predators at the top of the food chain, once they reach adulthood. Juveniles have to contend with predation, accidental death, falling from the nest, or fratricide. Adults have to deal with injuries, starvation, collisions, and human interference.
We see eagles as being unstoppable predators, but is this the case? Does the eagle have any natural predators, and what are the threats to life from other creatures?
We have to consider the risks to the more vulnerable chicks, especially those that aren’t nesting in trees. Some creatures will take these chicks where possible.
There are natural predators vs. unnatural predators, which is where humans come into the equation. When you add in the conflicts between eagles, you see that these birds aren’t as invincible as you might think.
Top of the Food Chain
Eagle are apex predators, which puts them at the very top of the food chain. Many eagle species will eat a wide variety of birds and mammals to survive. Bald Eagles will also take a lot of fish out of lakes and rivers right across the country.
It is easy to assume that the eagle has no predators because of its position at the top of the food chain. This is true for adult eagles in their prime.
These skills and the diet diversity means that they are more likely to prey on an animal than become preyed upon. There is nothing within their ecosystem with the skill or power to take a healthy adult eagle down. Fox and wolf species could try and rush a feeding eagle in desperation but are more likely to get the eagle’s kill than the bird itself. On the flip side of this, eagles will take fox cubs and wolf pups if the opportunity arises.
Any eagle in its prime is likely to survive well with enough food resources in its territory. But, there may come a time where food is scarce, and eagles become weak and injured. A struggling eagle on a riverbank could become a target of larger predators. But, if you see animals feeding on eagle remains, it is more likely to be carrion.
Then there is the interesting story of the Bald Eagle in Maine in 2020 found with a stab wound through the heart. It was caused by a mother loon protecting its chicks. Accidents can happen, and protective parents will do their best for their brood.
Eagles are only at the top of the food chain when they are adults. We have to consider the risks to the more vulnerable chicks, especially those that aren’t nesting in trees. Some creatures will take these chicks where possible.
Young eagles don’t yet have the power or flight skills to defend themselves from attack. Young nestlings may have talons and a sharp beak, but that isn’t going to do much when a determined predator decides to take them. You might assume that they are perfectly safe up in trees. However, arboreal creatures like bears and raccoons can climb up and take advantage of an easy meal. Other birds may come and take a chick, such as owls, hawks, and corvids, depending on the chick’s size.
Not all eagles nest in trees. Some will nest on rocky ledges that can provide shelter and sustain a nest large enough for their needs. Also, some bald eagle chicks may fall from the nest or get pushed out by their siblings. Unable to fly and underdeveloped, they could be an easy meal for ground-dwelling creatures. Foxes, wolves, bears, bob-cats, and wolverines are just some of the major carnivores that will take a chick on the ground.
It isn’t uncommon for birds of prey to put all of their energy into raising one chick so it can thrive. It is more practical to give food to this one chick to ensure that at least one is fit and strong. This tends to be the first egg to hatch within a nest.
The laying and hatching of eggs are staggered to make it easier on the first chick and essentially turns the younger sibling into a spare. Not only will the parent focus on the larger chick, who will beg to get as much food as possible, but the older chick will push the youngest out the way, attack it, and even kill it.
Finally, we can’t forget that eagles do have an unnatural predator within their ecosystem. Bald eagles across the US are still shot and poisoned by humans that feel threatened by their existence. Their numbers have recovered greatly since the mid-century, after mass poisoning from DDT. But, there are still lead poisoning and shooting cases as fishermen and landowners struggle to coexist with these incredible birds. Landowners may also shoot any Golden Eagles that they perceive as a threat.
Eagles may be at the top of the food chain, but they still encounter threats.
An adult eagle is in a position to rule its territory and prey on all kinds of species. But, it has to reach adulthood first. The mortality rates of eagles tend to come from deaths of chicks and juveniles – either through predation at the nest site, accidental death, falling from the nest, or fratricide by their bigger sibling.
Even those that reach adulthood have to be careful when dealing with other eagles and creatures protecting their young. Injuries and mistakes can be fatal. They also have to deal with humans. So, while the eagle doesn’t have any natural predators in adulthood, life is far from easy.