Kings of the Sky

By Luke Matthews

There are many large and majestic birds that occupy the skies of North America, but there are few as powerful and recognizable as the Bald Eagle. While these birds are most commonly associated with Canada, Alaska and the Eastern Coast of the U.S., California also hosts these birds with both resident and migratory populations.

Bald Eagle can be found year round along the northern coast of California, the Klamath Basin and the Sierra Nevada range. While these areas support Bald Eagles all year long and often have breeding pairs, eagle densities are much higher throughout the state in the winter. During the late fall and winter, Bald Eagle from other western states and Canada migrate south into the Sacramento Valley, following migratory waterbirds of the pacific flyway.

When it comes to diet, Bald Eagle are not very picky, they commonly eat fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and carrion. However, when they are readily available, these eagles prefer to eat fish and other bird species. Waterbirds make up a significant portion of their diets in the Sacramento Valley during the winter and it is common to see groups of Bald Eagles hunting waterfowl species ranging from the small American Green-winged Teal to the large Snow Goose. While these eagles often hunt for themselves, they are also known to utilize their size and strength to steal food from other birds such as Peregrine Falcons, Prairie Falcons, Northern Harriers and Osprey.

Bald Eagles are truly “kings of the sky”; however, these massive birds heavily rely on water and are rarely found in dry or arid areas. That makes this year challenging for Bald Eagles as historic drought conditions continue across much of the west. The Sacramento Valley has also been experiencing drought conditions but we are very lucky to have a decent amount of flooded rice fields and wetlands this year. The total footprint of flooded habitat in the Valley this winter is less than 50 percent of what we normally expect. Although it’s not perfect, the flooded habitats what we do have will be even more important to supporting the millions of migratory waterbirds, Bald Eagles and other wildlife species that depend on flooded habitats each year.

Luke Matthews is the Wildlife Programs Manager for the California Rice Commission