Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

Golden Eagle
The Yorkshire Dales Falconry Centre

The Golden Eagle's name derives from the rich yellow plumage around head & neck. The rest of body is darker brown, paler on its shoulders & almost black on main flight feathers. The young are darker with white streaks around the head & neck, with white base (i.e. closest to body) to tail & white patch on each wing. The young's tail colouring sometimes leads to being identified as White-Tailed Sea Eagle, but that eagle's tail is white at the tip (i.e. the other end). The mature colouring is attained at around 4-5 yrs old.

Golden Eagles have light brown eyes.

The Golden Eagle is found in parts of Scotland in the UK, throughout northern Scandinavia, Russia & east through Asia to the Pacific and much of the North America continent from southern parts Canada down to central Mexico. A smaller subspecies (Aquila chrysaetos homeyri) is found throughout Spain, parts of North Africa, parts of Greece & the Middle East. Other subspecies are found in Japan & Korea (A.c. japonica), Turkestan & Manchuria to SouthEast China (A.c. daphanea) & east from the Altai mountains in Central Asia (A.c. kamtschatica).

Golden Eagles feed mainly on medium sized mammals, such as rabbits, hares or ground squirrels, & birds, such as grouse & partridge. They will also occassionally take fish, snakes, insects & larger mammals (such as young deer). Most of the larger prey is normally taken as carrion. At times of year when food is scarce, the diet will often consist almost entirely of carrion.

Large prey is normally eaten where it is caught or found. The most a golden Eagle is able to lift into the air is around 4-5kg.

They generally hunt by soaring from the perching sites, generally attacking their prey from a low level. If their prey is not caught on the first suprise attack, they are rarely successful in catching the prey from a chase. On rare exceptions they will stoop from height to catch their prey. In these stoops, they are reputed to be able to achieve speeds comparable to the Peregrine Falcon, with some estimates in the range of 150-200mph. In level flight, their speed is estimated at around 30mph. They may also hunt cooperatively as a pair. Hunting is mainly done early in the morning or late in the evening. They are capable of fasting for several days after successfully catching & gorging on suitable prey. One bird in captivity was recorded as going for 3 weeks without food & gorging itself on a weeks worth of food. Their daily food requirement is in the region of half a pound of meat (250g) per day.

A recent study concluded that on average a Golden Eagle will spend less than an hour a day in flight (outside of the breeding season when the parents are not looking for additional food for their young), once fed up the eagle has no real incentive to fly. Even during the breeding season, the males will only be flying for around 22% & females for 15% of daylight hours (i.e. around 3hrs & 2hrs respectively).

The Golden Eagle was extensively hunted during the 19th century, throughout Europe. By the turn of the 20th century, it was virtually exterminated in the easily accessible lowland regions of Europe, only thinly populating the mountainous regions. It became extinct in Ireland in 1910. Following the problems with poisons in the environment (e.g. DDT), the Golden Eagle became protected in the majority of European countries, either legally or by support of the local population, particularly in Northen Europe. This has resulted in stable or increasing populations. Unfortunately, persecution (shooting, nest-raiding, poisoning & skin collection) persists in some areas of Southern Europe.

Until around 1800, Golden Eagles nested in Snowdonia. Some nested in Lake District. Fairly widespread over Scottish highlands & down to western coast. 1 pair in England, in Cumbria, successfully rearing 12 chicks during the 1970s.

Golden Eagles rarely migrate. Severe winters may cause those living in the more northerly region to move south, mainly because of the lack of prey. The Golden Eagles living in the UK do not move south of their normal breeding range, even in the severest winters. Despite being non-migratory, daily movement to find food may be extensive, a pair breeding on Raithlin Island (N. Ireland) regularly crossed to Kintyre, 22km away, to feed.

Golden Eagles generally mate for life, in the event of death of one of a pair the remaining bird will rapidly find another mate. Nests are usually made on cliff faces or in trees. The same nest is used year after year, with the pair adding to it each year. The nests in trees are able to expand the most, in 1954 a nest in Scotland was found to have grown to a depth of 15ft over a 45yr period. Eggs are normally laid around March. 2 eggs laid 3-4 days apart is usual, incubation is mainly done by the female & lasts for 43-45 days. Both eggs usually hatch, but the older of the chick kills the younger in around 4 out of 5 instances. If the younger chick survives, sibling rivalry decreases with time. The young fledge at around 9-10 weeks, becoming fully independant around 4-5 weeks later. The young are usually driven from the nest by the end of October, though some will stay as late as December. Breeding normally starts at around 3-4 years old, but their can be up to 75% mortality before the young reach breeding age.

In captivity Golden Eagles can live in excess of 60 years. The baby born at the National Birds Of Prey Centre came from a 40+ yr old female. Stories exist of Golden Eagles living in excess of 100 yrs, this is very unlikely, even if well cared for. In the wild, the oldest known recorded bird (from a ringing study) was 32 when it died.

Other than the usual causes of death, it has been reported that Golden Eagles have been killed in collision with jet planes & electrocuted flying into power-lines. A study in America filmed Golden Eagles landing on dummy electricity lines, it was found that their wingspan was sufficient to be able to touch two power cables simultaneously, which would result in a massive shock. Some power companies modified their poles in the light of the study, affecting around 2% of the electricity system & reducing Golden Eagle deaths on the modified lines by around 95%.

In Texas, just after WW2, the "sport" of eagle hunting from light aircraft had brief popularity. Involving diving at eagles, using both hands to kill the bird with a shotgun & quickly recovering control of the plane. Most birds were shot at around 35-100m off the ground, making this a dangerous sport, but as each bird killed gained a bounty from the sheep farming land owners, it was considered well worth the risk. One pilot claimed over 8,000 birds in a 7 year period, the majority of which were Golden Eagles. The "sport" was banned in 1962.

Mythology & Folklore :

Aeschylus, the 5th century BC Greek poet & dramatist, was warned by a soothsayer that he would be killed on a particular day by a house falling on his head. On that day, he headed for the fields to avoid houses. Unfortunately, he was killed by a golden eagle dropping a tortoise on top of his bald head, in order to break its shell. (Some versions of this story suggest the bird may have been a lammergeier or bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), both have been observed using this technique to break into food).

In the 12th century, it was believed that the golden eagles in Snowdonia could predict future events, in particular wars. It was believed they would perch on Snowdon, sharpening their beaks ready to feed on the dead.

IUCN Red List Status :

Least Concern (LC)

AOU Data :

Species Number : 349.0
Alpha Code : GOEA
Common Name : Golden Eagle
Longevity Record : 23yrs 10months

Also Called :

Black Eagle
Mountain Eagle
Ring-tailed Eagle
(American) War Bird
King Of Birds
Brown Eagle
Canadian Eagle
Jackrabbit Eagle
Royal Eagle
Bird Of Jupiter
Calumet Eagle
Eryr euraid
Eryr euraidd
Eryr melyn
Iolaire dhubh
Iolaire bhuidhe
Iolaire mhonaidh (Mountain Eagle)
Irish Iolar fíréin
Catalan Àguila daurada
Czech Orel Skalní
Danish Kongeørn
Dutch Steenarend
Esperanto Re^ga aglo
Finnish Kotka
Aigle Royal (Royal Eagle)
Aigle Fauve
Aigle Doré (Gilded Eagle)
Aigle d'or
Steinadler (Stone Eagle)
Greek Κρυσαετόσ
Àguila daurada
Icelandic Gullörn
Italian Aquila Reale (Royal Eagle)
Lappish (Sami) Goaskin
Brūndzeltenais Ērglis
Klinšu Ērglis
Lithuanian Kilnusis Erelis
Norwegian Kongeørn
Polish Orzeł przedni
Portuguese Aguia-real
Acvilă aurie (with thanks to Dan)
Acvilă de munte (Mountain Eagle)
Russian Беркут (Berkut or Burkut)
Spanish Aguila Reale (Royal Eagle)
Swedish Kungsörn
Turkish Kartal
Inupiaq (Alaskan Eskimo) Tinmiaqpak
Yupik (Siberian Eskimo) Qawaapak
lao diao (Old Eagle)
jie bai diao (Pure White Eagle)
hong diao (Red Eagle)
jin bo diao (Golden Necked Eagle)
Japanese inu-washi (Dog Eagle)
Arabic Oakab

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