Spot the white-tailed eagle in Iceland: The king of Icelandic birds

The white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) is often called the king of Icelandic birds due to its magnificence. A full-grown eagle is a graceful sight. The Icelandic eagle belongs to the hawk family (Accipitridae) and is the only member of this family in Iceland.

The rise and fall of the Icelandic eagle

The white-tailed eagle is not only an interesting bird but its story in Iceland sends an important message about wildlife conservation. Centuries ago, people detested and persecuted the eagle. In the late 1800s, the association “Vargafélag” was established in Western Iceland. They paid hunters for each eagle they killed until the year 1905, which were about 95 eagles. The eagle population was not protected by law until 1913. The population size decreased even further, however, and in 1960 scientists found only 20 pairs in Iceland. The Birdlife Conservation Organization was founded three years later, which lead to a common shift in Icelanders’ attitude towards wildlife. This may just have saved the white-tailed eagle from extinction.

Fun facts about eagles

  1. White-tailed eagles become sexually mature at the age of 4-6 years.
  2. They can expect to reach thirty years. The oldest wild eagle we know of reached 38 years.
  3. Eagles are monogamous and pair for life.
  4. During courtship, eagle pairs dance with each other. They lock their claws together and fly, one of them upside down. They often take deep dives from the air and then start the cerimony all over again. This eagle dance is a breathtaking sight.
  5. According to Icelandic folklore, children became more mindful if they drank milk through the quill of an eagle feather.
  6. An old myth says that in order to see hidden things, one should carry around an eagle eye or rub it around their own eyes.
  7. There are old Icelandic stories of eagles stealing lambs, cats, and even infants.

One of the World’s largest birds of prey

The Icelandic white-tailed eagle is one of the World’s largest birds of prey, along with its cousins the steller´s sea eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus), the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), and the philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi). An adult white-tailed eagle weighs 11-15.5 lbs and is 27-35 in long. The eagle’s size makes him rather clumsy and slow compared to other birds of prey. The male eagle, or “ari” in Icelandic, is smaller than the female, which is “assa”. This size difference of the sexes is a characteristic for birds of prey. The white-tailed eagle is brownish but turns paler as he gets older, especially around the head and neck. The wedge-shaped tail is white on adults but brown on juveniles. The hooked beaks and strong feet are yellow on adults but dark on juveniles. The white-tailed eagle has an impressive 75 in.-100 in long wingspan. Their wings are broad and square, and the feathers spread widely. Eagles often glide high up in the sky.

How many eagles live in Iceland?

The Icelandic eagle population was about 80 breeding pairs in 2018. Their main habitat is in Western Iceland and about 60 pairs breed at Breiðafjörður. Non-breeding eagles are 50-100 so the population is 210-260 birds in the fall. The white-tailed eagle also nests in Eastern Greenland, Northern Europe, and in Asia all the way to the Pacific. The biggest breeding population is in Norway.

As for other birds of prey, the white-tailed eagle mainly hunts birds. Seabirds are popular victims since great numbers of them live in the eagles’ habitat – especially eider ducks (Somateria mollissima), gulls (Laridae) and fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis). Eagles also hunt fish in shallow waters, both lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus) and salmonids. The white-tailed eagle is a scavenger, especially juveniles during the winter. Many eagles died due to their scavenger behavior back when poisoning foxes was allowed. In 1964, all poisoning was banned by law and the eagle population began to slowly recover.

Caring for the family

Eagle couples own a territory where they stay most of the year and defend against other eagles. The couples build large nests made of sticks, angelica, and seaweed, and line it with dry hay and feathers. Icelandic eagles choose to nest in small islets or low cliffs close to the sea. During the persecution period in the late 1800s, however, most of them fled to inaccessible high cliffs. The white-tailed eagle starts egg-laying early in the spring, most often in mid-April. They lay 1-3 white eggs which hatch after 35-40 day of incubation. The female incubates most of the time, while the male hunts, though the male also incubates for short periods every now and then. The young hatch blind and almost naked. They are completely dependent on their parents, so the female stays with them in the nest for the first weeks. When the young mature, the female leaves the young unattended and joins her partner to hunt. The young start flying 10-11 weeks old but follow their parents around until late in the fall.

The white-tailed eagle is a stationary bird in Iceland. Adults mostly stay within their territory but juveniles tend to roam around the country during the winter. Scientists hope that if they keep doing that, the white-tailed eagle population will eventually occupy its old territories around the country. The winter months can be harsh for inexperienced hunters, so many juveniles become scavengers during that period. Young eagles often struggle due to the fat and oils from carrions they hunt. This fat and oils stick to their feathers so they cannot fly. Many Icelanders try their best to capture these flightless birds, have them cleaned, and released back to nature. Each individual is an important member of the eagle population.

Do you want a flying dragon?

Many Icelandic folk tales and poetry mention eagles and quite a few landmarks are named after them. If someone wants to own a flying dragon, like the ones in the Game of Thrones, they could try sneaking some pure gold into an eagle’s nest. If they are lucky, there is an infertile egg in the nest which will hatch a flying dragon if it lies next to the gold. Even if there is no egg, there is no need to worry. The gold will turn into a wishing stone instead and fulfill their wildest dreams.

Fun links to visit

Author: Dr. Þórður Örn Kristjánsson
Photographer: Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson