A sea eagle or fish eagle (also called erne or ern, mostly in reference to the white-tailed eagle) is any of the birds of prey in the genus Haliaeetus[2] in the bird of prey family Accipitridae.

Sea eagles
Temporal range: Middle Miocene–Recent 16–0 Ma[1]
The Bald Eagle By Carole Robertson.jpg
Bald eagle
(Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Subfamily: Haliaeetinae
Genus: Haliaeetus
Savigny, 1809
Type species
Falco albicilla
Linnaeus (1753)

See text


Ichthyophaga Lesson,1843

Taxonomy and evolutionEdit

The genus Haliaeetus was introduced in 1809 by French naturalist Marie Jules César Savigny in his chapter on birds in the Description de l'Égypte.[3][4] The two fish eagles in the genus Ichthyophaga were found to lie within Haliaeetus in a genetic study in 2005,[5] they were then moved accordingly. They are very similar to the tropical Haliaeetus species. A prehistoric (i.e. extinct before 1500) form from Maui in the Hawaiian Islands may represent a species or subspecies in this genus.

The relationships to other genera in the family are less clear; they have long been considered closer to the genus Milvus (kites) than to the true eagles in the genus Aquila on the basis of their morphology and display behaviour;[6][7] more recent genetic evidence agrees with this, but points to their being related to the genus Buteo (buzzards/hawks), as well, a relationship not previously thought close.[8]

A 2005 molecular study found that the genus is paraphyletic and subsumes Ichthyophaga, the species diverging into a temperate and tropical group.[9]


Haliaeetus is possibly one of the oldest genera of living birds. A distal left tarsometatarsus (DPC 1652) recovered from early Oligocene deposits of Fayyum, Egypt (Jebel Qatrani Formation, about 33 million years ago (Mya)) is similar in general pattern and some details to that of a modern sea eagle.[10] The genus was present in the middle Miocene (12-16 Mya) with certainty.[11]

The origin of the sea eagles and fishing eagles is probably in the general area of the Bay of Bengal. During the Eocene/Oligocene, as the Indian subcontinent slowly collided with Eurasia, this was a vast expanse of fairly shallow ocean; the initial sea eagle divergence seems to have resulted in the four tropical (and Southern Hemisphere subtropical) species living around the Indian Ocean today. The Central Asian Pallas's sea eagle's relationships to the other taxa is more obscure; it seems closer to the three Holarctic species which evolved later and may be an early offshoot of this northward expansion; it does not have the hefty yellow bill of the northern forms, retaining a smaller, darker beak like the tropical species.[8]

The rate of molecular evolution in Haliaeetus is fairly slow, as is to be expected in long-lived birds which take years to successfully reproduce. In the mtDNA cytochrome b gene, a mutation rate of 0.5–0.7% per million years (if assuming an Early Miocene divergence) or maybe as little as 0.25–0.3% per million years (for a Late Eocene divergence) has been shown.[8]


The 10 extant species are:[6]

Image Scientific name Common name Distribution
  Haliaeetus leucocephalus Bald eagle All of the continental United States, Canada, and northern Mexico
  Haliaeetus leucogaster White-bellied sea eagle India and Sri Lanka through Southeast Asia to Australia
Haliaeetus sanfordi Sanford's sea eagle Solomon Islands
  Haliaeetus vocifer African fish eagle Sub-Saharan Africa
  Haliaeetus vociferoides Madagascar fish eagle Madagascar
  Haliaeetus leucoryphus Pallas's fish eagle Central Asia, between the Caspian Sea and the Yellow Sea, from Kazakhstan and Mongolia to the Himalayas, Bangladesh and northern India.
  Haliaeetus albicilla White-tailed eagle Western Greenland, most of Eurasia as far south as southeastern China and Japan
  Haliaeetus pelagicus Steller's sea eagle Coastal northeastern Asia
  Haliaeetus humilis Lesser fish eagle Kashmir through southeast India, Nepal, and Burma towards Indochina
  Haliaeetus ichthyaetus Grey-headed fish eagle Southeast Asia


Sea eagles vary in size, from Sanford's sea eagle, averaging 2–2.7 kilograms (4.4–6.0 lb), to Steller's sea eagle, weighing up to 9 kg (20 lb).[6] At up to 6.9 kg (15 lb 3 oz), the white-tailed eagle is the largest eagle in Europe. Bald eagles can weigh up to 6.3 kg (13 lb 14 oz), making them the largest eagle native to North America. There are exceptional records of even heavier individuals in both the white-tailed and bald eagles, although not surpassing the largest Steller's sea eagles. The white-bellied sea eagle can weigh up to 4.5 kg (9 lb 15 oz).[6] They are generally overall brown (from rich brown to dull grey-brown), often with white to the head, tail or underparts. Some of the species have an all-yellow beak as adults, which is unusual among eagles.[6]

Their diets consist mainly of fish, aquatic birds, and small mammals. Nests are typically very large and positioned in a tree, but sometimes on a cliff.[6]

The tail is entirely white in adult Haliaeetus species except for Sanford's, white-bellied, and Pallas's. Three species pairs exist: white-tailed and bald eagles, Sanford's and white-bellied sea eagles, and the African and Madagascar fish eagles,[8] each of these consists of a white- and a tan-headed species.

In popular cultureEdit

A sea eagle in the flag of Naval Reconnaissance Battalion of Finnish Navy

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Mindat.org". www.mindat.org. Retrieved 2021-05-28.
  2. ^ Etymology: Neo-Latin "sea eagle", from Ancient Greek [1] ἁλιάετος (haliaetos) or ἁλιαίετος (haliaietos, poetic (e.g. Homeric) variant), "sea eagle, osprey" (hali, "at sea" (dative case), + aetos, "eagle"). The two variant Greek forms lie behind the equally correct latinizations haliaetus (as in Pandion haliaetus) and haliaeetus.
  3. ^ Savigny, Marie Jules César (1809). Description de l'Égypte: Histoire naturelle Volume 1 (in French). Paris: Imprimerie impériale. pp. 68, 85.
  4. ^ Mayr, Ernst; Cottrell, G. William, eds. (1979). Check-list of Birds of the World. Volume 1. Vol. 1 (2nd ed.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Museum of Comparative Zoology. p. 299.
  5. ^ Lerner, Heather R.L.; Mindell, David P. (2005). "Phylogeny of eagles, Old World vultures, and other Accipitridae based on nuclear and mitochondrial DNA" (PDF). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 37 (2): 327–46. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2005.04.010. PMID 15925523.
  6. ^ a b c d e f del Hoyo, Elliott & Sargatal 1994.
  7. ^ Brown, L. H, & Amadon, D. (1968). Eagles, Hawks and Falcons of the World. Country Life Books, Feltham.
  8. ^ a b c d Wink, Heidrich & Fentzloff 1996.
  9. ^ LM2005.pdf
  10. ^ Rasmussen, D., Tab, O., Storrs, L., & Simons, E. L. (1987). Fossil Birds from the Oligocene Jebel Qatrani Formation, Fayum Province, Egypt. Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology 62: 1–20. PDF Fulltext (file size 8.1 MB)
  11. ^ Lambrecht, K. (1933). Handbuch der Palaeornithologie. Gebrüder Bornträger, Berlin.
  12. ^ AFP (5 April 2011). "Eagle cam becomes net sensation". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 5 April 2011.
  13. ^ "Sea-Eagle CAM". Sea Eagle Cam, BirdLife Australia. Retrieved 7 September 2020.

General sourcesEdit

External linksEdit