Golden Eagle is a magnificent bird of prey, widely but sparsely distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere and the largest one in North America.
I am always reminded of the phrase ‘free as a bird’ while watching a Golden Eagle soar through the sky and scan the terrain from far above like it owns the entirety of the sky along with the ground beneath.
When I see a Golden Eagle hunt, I am made aware of the true forces of nature and a pair of Golden Eagles taking care of their chicks is one of the best displays of parental care you can see anywhere in the animal kingdom.
With ecological and cultural significance in all of its different ranges, the Golden Eagle is a well-known raptor and a great deal of study has been made to understand this species over the years. It has suffered and struggled for its survival in recent centuries because of human exploitation, but efforts have been made to protect this skillful predator bird and ensure its dominance of the northern sky for the years to come. This guide is my attempt to help you identify, understand and admire the mighty Golden Eagles, for they are very much worthy of the attention.
Taxonomy of Golden Eagle
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Aves
- Order: Accipitriformes
- Family: Accipitridae
- Genus: Aquila
- Species: A. chrysaetos
How to Identify Golden Eagles
Identification of Golden Eagles can be made fairly accurately if you remember just a few key points given below and know its distinction from some commonly confused birds.
Golden Eagles are dark brown on the back and have a golden shine to their neck on the napes which gives them their name. The colours in their body vary as they age. The chicks are completely white and as they mature, they slowly start turning brown.
While immature, they have neat white patches on both the wings and at the base of the tail. The white patches are present below the primaries. It is important to note that they always have dark bellies.
Unlike Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles have splotchy patches of white on their wings.
Size and Shape
The large size of the Golden Eagle and its characteristic shape is very important and handy while trying to identify it. With a huge wingspan of 2m and a length of around 0.8m, most other raptors don’t even come close to competing with it in size and this makes it easily recognizable to a trained eye. The female golden eagle is bigger than the male.
The smaller head with a massive hooked bill and a longer tail distinguish it from a Bald Eagle that has an almost equal head and tail length. In general, the length of its head appears to be one-third the length of the tail while on the flight.
While gliding, Golden Eagles fly with wings in a slightly V-shape which is known as a dihedral position. Also, the feathers on the primaries are expanded like fingers. Moreover, they are often silent but during the breeding season, they make different types of distinct calls with a high pitch.
The dihedral shape is observed on a Turkey Vulture as well but they can be distinguished by their flying behavior. While Golden Eagles glide seamlessly and effortlessly, a turkey vulture will have less control and an unsteady flight.
With this, you are now well equipped to determine if the eagle you just saw is a Golden Eagle. Remember to rely on the shape more than the color; especially if the eagle seems to be juvenile. However, the more you understand about the bird, its habitat, and its habits, the more you’ll be able to increase your accuracy and expand your birding skills.
Where Does Golden Eagle Live: Habitat
Golden Eagles prefer vast untouched lands, primarily breeding in the mountains where nature is relatively undisturbed but can be found almost anywhere in the lowlands as well. However, they choose to stay away from dense human settlements like cities and agricultural districts.
Some of the common habitats you will likely encounter Golden Eagles are the mountains, open-country, prairies, deserts, grasslands, etc.
Geographically, they are mostly found in the European Alps, Scandinavian and Scottish mountains and lowlands, the Himalayas mountain range and the Western part of North America.
In some areas of the Eastern US, mainly the Appalachians Mountains, they are only sighted during migration in the winters in river valleys and wetlands where enough prey population exists with a low human disturbance.
Did you know?
A single pair of Golden Eagles can have a home range (territory) of over 200km2.
Golden Eagle Diet and Feeding
The majority of the diet of a golden eagle comes from small mammals like rabbits, squirrels and mice as well as medium-sized mammals like foxes, young deer, etc.
They are very skillful hunters and can fly up to 150 miles per hour to catch prey. They even hunt several other birds like pigeons, ravens, magpies, etc. They are capable of killing even larger mammals like deer and livestock but are limited by their ability to carry them back to their nests.
These birds are as skillful scavengers as they are hunters. With their massive body size, they dominate the carcasses of larger animals. For instance, in the harsh winters where food is limited, dead animals like moose help sustain them for extended periods.
Interestingly, Golden Eagles have been reported to hunt on turtles by carrying them on their claws and dropping them from a height to break open the hardcover to feed on the flesh inside. Snakes and lizards are also included in the diet of golden eagles wherever available.
Golden Eagle Breeding
A pair of Golden Eagle often mates for several years or possibly for life. Forming such a special pair requires a special and very interesting courtship practice in the form of undulating flights and aerobatic stunts.
The undulating flights are performed by both male and female eagles. Once it has located a potential female, the male eagle will carry a small rock or a stick into the air and then release it.
Instantly, it will dive at very high speed towards the stick, grab it in midair and then rise above to repeat the process a few more times. Females do the same but they may use different materials.
The actual copulation usually lasts for 10 to 20 seconds while they may mate for about a couple of months for up to 30 times before the female lays the egg.
The breeding season in most of the global range extends from March to August while it may say commence as early as November in southern areas and as late as April in Northern areas.
Golden Eagle Nesting
95% of all Golden Eagles lay eggs on eyries made on rocky cliffs while the rest will make their nest on large forest trees. In their vast territory, a pair of Golden Eagles will have multiple eyries, which they build together and use alternately for different years.
The Eyries of the Golden Eagle are slightly smaller than that of a sea eagle. It is 1.5 meters in diameter and roughly 1 meter in height. The female eagle constantly furnishes the eyrie by adding new material every year like twigs, bones, branches and grasses.
The major role of the female in an eyrie is to maintain the nest, and divide and feed the prey to young ones that the male constantly brings into the nest.
Golden Eagle Eggs
A female Golden Eagle may lay up to 4 eggs at a time over a few days but the common number of eggs laid is two. The incubation period for Golden Eagles is about 45 days. Both the eagle parents take turns providing their body warmth to the eggs which is vital for the survival of the eggs.
The eggs are 2.7 to 3.4 inches in length and 1.9 to 2.5 inches in width. The colour of the eggs may be white, creamy or pinkish and has dark blotches.
The egg that was first laid mostly hatches the first and has the highest chance of overall survival. The older one that hatches the first can often kill the other. After months of parental care by both the eagle parents, the juveniles will be finally ready to fly in roughly 60 to 70 days since hatching.
Golden Eagle Population
The Golden Eagle range is one of the largest ranges of similar bird species covering much of the Northern hemisphere. However, in most areas of the range, the golden eagle population have been on the decline and in some areas, they are no longer found. Today, the golden eagle population is assumed to be stable.
The estimated population of Golden Eagles in the world today is around 130,000 individuals out of which 87,100 are mature ones. The population estimate of Golden Eagles in the US is 20,000-30,000 individuals. It is important to consider that the estimates may vary according to different studies and a more detailed and wide study is needed.
Is The Golden Eagle Endangered?
Golden Eagle is placed on the Least Concern category of the IUCN Red List as per a 2021 Global Assessment. The International Union for Conservation of Nature attributes this assessment to the extremely large range of Golden Eagles, large population size and a stable population trend.
On the other hand, golden eagles have become extinct in some of their historical ranges like Ireland where restoration efforts are currently in place and some individuals have been reintroduced.
Golden Eagle Habits
Golden Eagles are highly unsocial raptors and maintain a strict territory. The Golden Eagle pair along with their juveniles usually hunts together where one has the role of diverting the attention of the prey when the others attack. Although the pairs mate for life and are monogamous, if one of them dies, they are replaced very quickly.
The impressive acrobatic stunts shown by golden eagles might not always serve any purpose and are intended as play. While taking care of the young ones, a male will never feed them. He only drops off the prey and the female feeds the young in small bits.
Golden Eagle Predators
There are no natural predators of Golden Eagles in their ecosystem. They are the king of the mountains and have been observed to even fend off bears that come close to their nest.
Although the king of the mountains, they are not the absolute rulers since they are often attacked by ravens and common buzzards but no competition over resources exists between them primarily.
The only predators of Golden Eagles are humans who have hunted them down and used them for hunting as well.
Golden Eagle Lifespan
In the wild, a golden eagle can live up to more than 30 years while in captivity, it can be extended further. However, the average life expectancy in the wild is lower at around 20 years.
Nevertheless, golden eagles have a fairly long lifespan but most of the mortality occurs at a young age. Only one or occasionally two golden eagles will experience fledging from a single nest. The young eagles are ready for breeding after reaching sexual maturity at four years of age and the cycle repeats itself.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: Golden Eagles maintain a healthy breeding population in the Western part of the US. However, they are rarely seen in the Mid-western and Eastern states and are only sighted during migration. In Western North America from Alaska to central Mexico, golden eagles breed in the Rocky Mountains and the plains and prairies.
Answer: Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles are different in appearance, shape and size when comparing two adults together. Anybody can easily tell one from the other because of the white-headed bald eagle and the golden shine on the golden eagle’s neck. However, it is when comparing the young ones that arise serious confusion while identifying.
A young bald eagle can be confused with a golden eagle because its head will not have turned bald and will still be dark. On the other hand, a young golden eagle will have white patches on the coverts and the tails and can be confused for a bald eagle.
Another difference between the two raptors is that golden eagles will have feathered foot while bald eagle has a visibly yellow ankle that is not feathered all the way.
Moreover, the shape and length of the head and tail as mentioned earlier will let you accurately distinguish between the two and the habitat and location map is always a bird watcher’s accomplice when other features aren’t observable.
Answer: The most common national animal in the world officially is the golden eagle. The countries are Austria, Mexico, Germany, Kazakhstan and Albania. Also, the golden eagle is considered the national bird of Scotland unofficially.
Answer: In Greek mythology, the golden eagle is seen as Zeus’s companion and messenger. In medieval Europe, golden eagles were considered royal birds and only the kings were allowed to use them. Native American tribes associated courage in battle with the mighty golden eagles and considered it the eagle of war.
One of the most famous cultural significance of golden eagles comes from Mongolia where they have been historically used as hunting companions.
Domesticated at the young age of four, the hunting tribes of Mongolia use this skilful hunter bird to hunt down foxes and other animals. Only the female golden eagles are used because they are larger than the males.
Finally, in recent times, golden eagles are being trained to hunt down illegal and rogue drones by agencies from around the world.
Answer: According to IUCN Red List, the global Golden Eagle population is currently stable. However, some of the common threats to golden eagles include agriculture, commercial forestry, hunting, pollution and climate change.