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White Tailed Eagle { Birds of Europe}

Updated on November 16, 2014

White Tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla



The White Tailed Eagle belongs to the order of birds known as the Acciptriformes and the family Accipitridae within that order. They have been allocated the genus name of Haliaeetus from the Greek halos=sea+aetos eagle its alternative common name is the Sea Eagle. The specific name of alibicilla derives from the Latin albus =white+ Medieval Latin cilla indicating a a tail.

In the UK it is placed on the Red list of conservation concern due to historical declines with an estimated population of forty pairs {summer}. In the UK it is a reintroduced breeder and a scarce visitor to western Scotland. It originally became extinct in the 1890's. It was reintroduced in 1993. [ The last bird seen before the reintroduction was a female on Skye in 1916}

This species breeds locally in Europe and north and central Asia, and winters south to southern Europe and India. It inhabits sea coasts , large rivers and lakes. They were once common over much of Britain. However, a mistaken reputation of taking lambs led to its persecution, and extinction in Britain. The reintroduced birds were from birds of Norwegian stock. { Source BTO }

In Europe they are classed as 1 Global concern,Rare. The European population size is estimated at between 4,000-5,000 pairs. The population varies greatly from country to country there follows a few examples. In Austria there are just four breeding pairs{BP}, Bulgaria seven to ten BP. Croatia 80-90 BP. Germany 321-326 BP. Norway 1,900,2,200 BP. Russia 1,000-2,000 BP. Sweden 260-280 BP and Ukraine 80-100 BP. { Source Birdlife}

The Gaelic name for the bird is Iolaire-mhara, The Welsh Eryr y Mor and the Irish Iolar Mara.

America's national bird


Steller's Eagle H.pelagicus

All Eagles have heavy heads and powerful beaks
All Eagles have heavy heads and powerful beaks | Source

What are Eagles?

Eagles are large birds of prey of prey from the family Acciptridae and divided among many genera that are not necessarily closely related to each other.

Most of the sixty species of Eagles occur in Eurasia and Africa. Outside this area just fourteen species can be found, two in the United States and Canada,nine in Central and South America and three in Australia.

They are large,powerfully built birds,with a heavy head and beak. Even the smallest eagles,as for example the Booted Eagle Aquila pennata { the size of a common buzzard} have a relatively longer and more evenly broad wings and more direct faster flight,than other large birds of prey.

The prey of Eagles varies with the species,for instance our subject feeds on fish but they have been known to take water birds. Some species take snakes and others mammals.

The bald eagle of America is probably the strongest carrier of all Eagles being capable of carrying a male deer fawn of 15 pounds in weight.Others kill prey which may be much heavier but they will eat the prey on the ground eating has been killed.

However, they all have at least one similar characteristic. It has been observed that most birds of prey look back over their shoulders before striking prey { or shortly thereafter} predation is often a two edged sword . All hawks seem to have this habit ,from the smallest Kestrel** to the largest Ferruginous, but not the Eagles.

The weight of the different species also varies. The Stella's eagle, Haliaeetus pelagicus,weighs about 15 pounds The Philipinne eage , Pithecophaga jefferyri 14 pounds The Bald eagle Haliaeetus lecocephalus { American National Bird}, 6.6 to13.9 pounds, the weight seems to vary according to location.

Our subject the White tailed Eagle H.albicilla weighs about 11-13 pounds the female being the heavier. As always we commence with description of the species under review.

** This species has already been reviewed in this series.

Haliaeetus albicilla the White tailed Eagle

Taken in Svolvaer, Norway
Taken in Svolvaer, Norway | Source

Description of the White -tailed or Sea Eagle . Haliaeetus albicilla

A larger and even more powerful bird than the Golden eagle, {the UK's only other species of Eagle}with a stronger beak,stouter legs, more formidable and cruel talons,and even greater extent of wing, but with ,no commensurate spirit,The White tailed Eagle with vulterine propensities,feeds chiefly on fish and available carrion it may discover on the shore.

They can be distinguished from the Golden Eagle by having the lower part of its tarsus naked, in the Golden Eagle the tarsus is feathered all the way down to its toes.The toes themselves are also different,those of the White tailed Eagle are covered with broad scutellations on the whole of the length of the upper middle toe, while the Golden eagle has only three of these scutellations at the end of its toes. Like the Golden Eagle the White tailed Eagle varies greatly in size.

In the adult the head,neck,forepart of the backs and breast,and upper wing coverts are greyish yellow,the feathers are greyish brown at the base of the other parts,greyish brown,edged with yellowish grey. The scapulars and feathers of the rump are glossed with purple. Those of the abdomen,tibiae and sub-caudal region inclining to chocolate brown.Quills and alular feathers brownish black with a tinge of grey.

The upper tail coverts and tail are white, as its common name suggests, generally speckled with a dusky grey at the base. The cere is pale yellow. The beak bluish grey,yellow at the base . In very old birds the whole beak becomes yellow. The irides are bright yellow. The tarsi and toes bright yellow,claws black, with a hint of bluish grey. The female is identical with the exception of its larger size.

Courtesy of sjwildlife's channel. Location Mull Scotland. Standard You Tube License

Historical notes and observations

During the early 1800's it was said to be a regular autumnal visitor on the eastern coasts,and there were several instances of its occurrence in Devon and Cornwall { South west England} and on the Quantoch Hills in west Somerset. Rabbit warrens,estuaries, the lakes in parks and decoys, were the most visited by the young birds on migration.

In Ireland,where the White tailed eagle was also comparatively common in former times,the bird was also decreasing in numbers and only a few survived by the late 1800's,and even then the few that did survive were seen off by deliberately poisoned carrion.

Robert Gray,considered the Isle of Skye, the head quarters of the White tailed eagle in Scotland, and there was a time when every bold headland maintained a pair.Yet even there, there was a remorseless war of persecution waged against them. There are records of 57 being shot on one estate,52 on another,and so ran the tale of blood.

According to Saunders the White tailed eagle was found in Europe, the valley of the Danube and in Turkey. In Scandinavia,Denmark, northern Germany and Russia and whilst on migration it visited the rest of Europe,the Canaries and North Africa. It was also found in China and in Greenland.

Butler relates that " The bird will eat not only fish but will also watch an Otter and wait until it leaves its captured Salmon,or is glad to feed upon the dead sheep upon the hillside. it also makes feebler mammals its prey,the Mountain Hare,Rabbit, or sick lamb,sometimes pouncing on a Grouse,or robbing nests of Gulls and other cliff birds of their young,sometimes it will make a raid upon a poultry yard,or sailing out over the sea,striking and impaling with its claws a basking fish".

The Raven will pursue it,and strike at it, so too, do even Rooks and Gulls. Great Skuas was dear to the Shepherd,as the courageous bird will never permit the Eagle to approach its cliffs,and they continue with their attack until the greater bird was driven away.

Mull Charters White tailed Sea Eagle Fishing. Courtesy of Peter Barden Standard You Tube License

Golden eagle the only other UK species.


White tailed Eagle,its haunts and habits.

The lofty crags overhanging the sea are the White tailed Eagle's favoured situation,where it makes forays to beat the shore in its quest for food. Macgillivray,1800's, describes the flight of the Eagle--" A beautiful sight it is, on some sunny day,when two Eagles are seen floating lazily in the sky,far above the tops of the brown hills,slowly,majestically,with wide spread wings, they sail in wide circles,gradually ascending, until at length you can scarcely see them. They may continue this exercise for an hour or more,and should you inquire the object of it, you may be satisfied that it is not for the purpose of spying on its prey, for no one ever saw an Eagle stoop from such heights."

" On ordinary occasions ,when proceeding from one place to another, they fly in the usual manner, by slow repeated flaps. In the breeding season,should two males encounter each other, they sometimes fight in the air,throwing themselves into singular postures and screaming loudly. The cry of this species is so shrill, that in calm weather one may hear it at a distance of a mile,and it often emits a kind of yelp,and which seems to be the expression of anger or impatience"

Another eminent writer in the 1800's,writes of this species. " Straying into districts such as those far away from man's haunts and industries,and there, it is where you will see the Sea Eagle come out of the mountain mists yelping fright at one's intrusion,and sail proudly onward's,displaying his grand powers of wing-man-ship to ones astonished and delightful gaze"

" Like the Golden eagle the present species will often sit for long periods silent and motionless on some tall rock-pinnacle, dreamily scanning the country or water's below. Of all the birds the Eagles are certainly the hardest to approach,and rarely indeed have you the good fortune to get within.gunshot of them. Aided with a good glass however, you may often observe their attitude as they sit on the pinnacles and shelves basking in the sun, with expanded drooping wings,after the manner of Cormorants,then see them launch heavily into the air,mounting upwards in a wide curving flight. Now sailing with wings fully expanded and the tips of the primaries slightly recurved, they sweep along over mountain,moorland and waste,and sea,advancing seemingly with but little effort,--

" High,o're the watery uproar,silent seen

Sailing sedate,in the majestic serene". ".

head shot of the White tailed Eagle


Eagles in Captivity.

In the days before it became illegal to keep wild birds in captivity { with a few exceptions}, it was a popular pastime. Bird catchers made a good living out of obtaining wild birds by whatever means to sell at markets,for food,and to bird keepers. It is part of our avian history and warrants a mention here.

Butler 1898, said the Eagle will live to a great age in captivity,but rarely becomes tame. The author relates in his work ' British Birds with their Nest and Eggs; of being acquainted with an Eagle, a female in a great state of dolcility,and took delight in having charge of a brood of chickens,taking turn in the task with a tame Kite. Both birds were the property of the Hon. T.Powys, { afterwards well known as Lord Lilford,the disinguished ornithologist},and were in the charge of Osman, the Oxford bird- stuffer,in whose yard,in his under graduate days, the writer often saw them, finding the eagle with two or three chickens on her back,while she was engaged in breaking up food for others running about her feet.

An adult White tailed Eagle was shot a few years ago !820, near Bridgewater and purchased at a high price by an American gentleman then living in Taunton. he had the bird stuffed and placed in a handsome mahogany case, it was he said, his country;s bird,and stood it at the bottom of his bed,while over his head suspended from the wall,waved the Stars and Stripes.

White Tailed Eagle

Gould Birds of Europe
Gould Birds of Europe

Nest and Eggs

This species makes its nest known as an Eyrie ,on the lofty crags near the seashore,returning to the same station year after year.In Archaic times before the relentless persecution drove them out of England there are records of them nesting on Lundy Island at the mouth of the Bristol Channel,on Dewerstone Rock near Plymouth,on the Isle of White and the Isle of Man,in the Lake District and unconfirmed reports of eryrie's in Wales. Today to see one in the wild state one has to travel to the western Isles of Scotland.

The nest too,did not escape persecution, they were burned by lowering burning peat fires onto them by ropes. Harvey Brown {Fauna of the Hebrides 1858} relates " There is no doubt about the marked decrease of eyrie's of the White tailed Eagle during the last 15 years. It is only inaccessible cliffs of some of the remotest and smallest islands,like those of the Shiant Group in the Outer Hebrides, that they have any chance of existence.Long may they continue in their inaccessible retreat,and may the broken overhanging basalt columnus,which project far beyond the giant ribs of similar structure down below,resist the wear and tear of time"

The nest which resembles that of the Golden eagle is lined with Luzula, is usually placed upon a cliff above the sea but sometimes upon a crag inland,also on a tree or bush on an island in a Loch. it is a bulky structure evidently due to the accumulation of years,flat in form and about five feet in diameter. It is made of large and small sticks,mated slightly together ,yet firm in texture, a few branches of heather,some seem to be recently obtained while others are worn and bleached and often a few pieces of seaweed. It is lines with a fine coarse grass, a few leaves of Sea Campion and one or two tufts of turf on which the eggs are deposited.

There are instances when some birds do not construct a nest like the one described but rather the soft earth on a rocky bed is all the effort made on which to lay the eggs. When they choose to build in a tree the nest is of a great size and can be observed from some distance.

The eggs ,two in number are laid in April. They are of a dull white colour about 2.85 inches by 2.2 inches . They soon get stained. The eggs are incubated by both parents for about 38 days and the young are normally hatched early in June,and, are covered with a greyish white down. They will remain in the nest for 5-6 weeks until they are able to fly.This is generally in the middle of August.

As soon as they are strong on the wing and can procure their own prey the old birds drive them off and they begin their wanderings to find their winter quarters.

In their immature plumage { in which they are so often mistaken for Golden Eagles} they are dark brown,mottled with fulvous on the mantle and wings. The tail is dark brown,beak black. The cere and irides light brown. The full plumage is not attained until the 5th or 6th year.

Although not strictly gregarious, these young birds often feed at no great distance from each other,searching the hills and shores for carrion or weak birds and animals.

White tailed Eagle Juvenile.

Originally on Flickr uploaded to Commons by Snowmanradio
Originally on Flickr uploaded to Commons by Snowmanradio | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, they sure are magnificent creatures. Hope you do get to see our eagle one day. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Nothing thrills me more than an eagle. I hope to see yours one day...

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello Devika I am happy to share what knowledge I have with you. So glad too, that your interest has grown. Thank you for your loyal and encouraging follow,and for your votes. Best wishes to you..

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Hi D.A.L. you have created another informative and educational hub. I always enjoy reading your work. I have learned about the facts on many new topics from you. My interest has grown through your hubs. Birds have a unique life. Voted up, interesting and useful.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi, Thank you so much for your encouraging comments, it means a lot . Best wishes to you.

      Zackary Lynch,

      Hi, So much of the worlds wildlife populations have been decimated my friend, it is sad fact. We as humans have decimated so much,but we can turn it round if it is what we really want to do. Like you I would like to what Europe was like in its natural state. Thank you for you kind comments, they are appreciated. Best wishes to you.

    • Zackary Lynch profile image

      Zack lynch 

      5 years ago from Southern Oregon

      It's a shame that so much of Europe has had its wildlife populations decimated over thousands of years. I've always thought it would be interesting to see what Europe would be like in a natural state. Excellent hub and an amazing species!

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      5 years ago from Norfolk

      Wonderful hub - so well researched and written. The images are spectacular - nature sure is a fabulous thing. Very well done.


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