Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos

An extremely distinctive and regal bird of prey found across the mountainous regions of the northern hemisphere.

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Alfred Tennyson

Appearance

The golden eagle is a big bird. Not just a large bird, but a BIG bird. It is nearly a metre in length and has a wingspan of over two metres. The plumage is dark brown, the nape and head of the bird having slightly lighter golden feathers which give the eagle its name and the image of being the king of birds with their royal crown. The golden eagle has 'booted' legs, with feathers going all the way down to above the talons. The eyes are dark in colour giving it an imperial, majestic air unlike the slightly startled or murderous golden eyes of most other raptors.

Habitat and Nesting

Golden eagles are most often seen cruising the thermals over mountainous regions. They can be found in the USA, Europe, Asia as at home in the Himalayas as in the Rockies. They are very sensitive to disruption by people and so are found in remote and inaccessible places.

An eagle's territory in the USA can be up to 200 square miles. In Scotland and upland areas of the UK they are more densely packed and so the range is much smaller being anything from 5-150 square kilometres. The range is a territory for life, the eagles finding a partner they will stay with throughout their 30+ year lifespan and sometimes even hunting in pairs across their homelands. They defend their territory against other eagles and spend their days patrolling or just sitting high up on a good crag or tree surveying their territory for invaders or prey. They have several night roosts and often several nest sites that they will rotate throughout the years.

Golden eagles nest on ledges on cliffs, mountains or crags, although if pressed will nest in a tree. The nests are very large, 2 metres high and 1.5 metres across, being made of branches and heather and lined with wool, greenery and grasses. Tree nests are even bigger! The nest is known as an eyrie and is added to every time it is used. One in Scotland had been used for 45 years and was 4.6 metres deep!

Eggs are laid in April, normally a clutch of 1-3, and are a dull white with brown or red markings. The first egg to hatch has the advantage over the others and often the first chick will push its siblings from the nest. The third chick rarely survives, the second chick making it only if it manages to survive the first four weeks, the chicks becoming less aggressive as they get older. The mother does all of the incubating, the male golden eagle supplying all the food for both her and the chicks until about three months after hatching, at which point she will help the male with hunting. The chicks are independent by 6 months of age.

Golden eagles only lay one clutch of eggs a year and often raise only one, murderous chick. It is thought of these chicks, 75% die before reaching sexual maturity at 4 years of age.

Feeding

Golden eagles like to hunt on open ground where their prey, usually medium sized mammals such as foxes, hares, snakes and game birds can be easily seen, rather than having to hunt through woodland. They do eat deer, but normally having found the animal dead already as carrion, rather than killing it outright.

Rather than diving out of the sky like an angel of death, the golden eagle glides along low to the ground surprising and pouncing on its prey. It is thought than at a dive the eagle could reach speeds of over 215 miles an hour, faster even than the peregrine falcon, but the large bird is not really designed to dive, more to soar upwards on its vast wings. A eagle diving at speed is an extremely rare sight.

Other Titbits

Habitat change is one of the major threats to golden eagles. In Scotland, many of the open areas are planted up with trees (which benefits woodland-loving species such as the honey buzzard) which removes open hunting grounds. The draining of wetland sites across Europe, which are often very open or scrubby with plenty of different food sources, is also forcing the eagles to broaden their range and putting them into competition with each other and other birds of prey.

Poisoning, a threat to all animals within the food chain, had a great effect on raptors stopping their eggs from forming properly. Eagles are still seen as a threat by gamekeepers and so are still shot, poisoned and their nests robbed.

Eagles are often said to carry off small children or livestock but are actually incapable of lifting large weights making these allegations somewhat doubtful!

Golden eagles have been trained by falconers throughout the ages, although they are no longer a popular hunting bird. The Mongolians trained them to hunt wolves and deer, the eagle pinning the animal down until the Mongolian hunters could catch up and dispatch the animal.

There are many myths and legends concerning eagles (see below for links) and many of these involve eagles in death rites. People have seen them as carriers of the soul to heaven and eagle remains have been found in prehistoric tombs, accompanying the occupants to the afterlife as well as appearing in North American, Roman, Greek and African legends. They have had a huge impact on the human psyche throughout our history.

St.John writes of the eagle in Revelations and it is seen as a bearer of the Word of God and thus its symbolism is used on the lecterns of churches.


Sources:
http://www.rspb.org.uk/birds/guide/g/goldeneagle/index.asp
http://www.baldeagleinfo.com/index.html
http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/Goldeneagle

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