Bird of the Week: white-tailed eagle

Britain's biggest bird of prey needs no introduction. But it did need a re-introduction, thanks to humans.

By Caroline Offord
Published 10 Apr 2019, 14:08 BST
The white-tailed eagle is Britain's biggest bird of prey. Hunted to extinction in Britain, it was ...
The white-tailed eagle is Britain's biggest bird of prey. Hunted to extinction in Britain, it was re-introduced to the west coast of Scotland and is now – tentatively – beginning to thrive.
Photograph by Ben Andrew

These magnificent birds are the largest birds of prey in the UK, nicknamed the ‘flying barn door, on account of their huge wingspan. They currently breed only in Scotland where there are 106 pairs. The 'eagle with the sunlit eye' is the translation of their poetic name in Gaelic, but the distribution of place names with an 'eagle' component (frequently variations on the Germanic word 'erne') suggests that white-tailed eagleswere previously found across much of lowland Britain and Ireland. 

Persecuted to extinction in the UK, white-tailed eagles returned following a re-introduction programme to the west of Scotland, instigated in 1975. The RSPB became involved in the late 1970s, and since then, this population has recovered steadily. As this population is now self-sustaining, no more are being released on the west coast.

The white-tailed eagle is sometimes called the sea eagle, given its preference for fish. It was successfully re-introduced to Britain as part of a 'rewilding' scheme.
Photograph by Chris Gomersall

White-tailed eagles tend to nest close to water and build huge stick nests that are used for many years, in trees, or on cliffs, or even on the ground, if trees are not available. They take around five years to mature enough to breed, but they can live for many years, generally forming long-term and monogamous bonds with their mates. 

White-tailed eagles tend to take their food from low-lying wetland or coastal habitats, mainly fish and waterbirds, depending what is available. They will also scavenge on both carrion and live mammals. This has led to conflict with sheep farmers in some areas, though closer investigation suggests that the actual level of impact by eagles on sheep farming is far lower than perceived by many land managers.


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