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Golden Eagle Fact Sheet

Golden EagleDescription: The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) belongs to the family Accipitridae.  A very large and variably brownish eagle with a wingspread of 60-80 inches. In North America male golden eagles are 6 1/2 -9 1/2 pounds (2.9-4.3kg.) and females 8-13 pounds (3.6-5.8 kg.). The feathers on the rear of the crown and nape are tipped golden. In its juvenile plumage the tail is white with a black terminal band, and in the wings, the inner primary feathers and outer secondary feathers are white creating the appearance of a "window" on the underside of the wings.

Field Identification: One of the largest diurnal raptors in North America. The head in relation to tail area is small in a flying golden eagle and large in a bald eagle. The wings are long and rather pointed with the six outer primaries extending as long, well-separated, upturned "fingers." The golden soars easily and evenly with an occasional rippling stroke of the wings. Flight is graceful and adroit. Young bald eagles can appear to be similar but lack the definitive black terminal band on the white tail and exhibit a larger head and broader wings than the golden. A flying osprey has a pronounced bend at the "wrist" and its white underparts will distinguish it at a long distance. The turkey vulture's upward-angled wings and teetering flight differentiate it from the golden eagle.

Habitat: In general the birds need the solitude of open country. The golden eagle is found in appropriate season from tundra and alpine country through forested areas to the deserts of the southwest including Death Valley and the Salton Sea (absent in the warmest season). Many nest in niches in cliffs, escarpments, and bluffs. In the rolling coastal ranges of California they nest almost exclusively in trees. Generally they are found at elevations of less than 8,000 feet and often distant from water.

The densest known population of golden eagles has been studied extensively by SCPBRG researcher, W. Grainger Hunt, in the Altamont Pass region of central California near the city of Livermore. Here, in the oak and grassland savannas, golden eagles nest in sycamore and oak trees and prey predominantly upon California ground squirrels.

Distribution: Found circumpolar in the Northern Hemisphere from the tundra to parts of Mexico. The largest concentrations in North America are in far western Canada and western conterminous United States where vast open landscapes and an abundance of prey exist to support these large predators.

Reproduction: Golden eagles engage in an undulating flight known as "sky-dancing" during courtship, however sky-dancing has also been observed during other parts of the year. In one account of a sky-dance, a flying bird called to a second bird on a nest ledge. The second bird began to circle up toward the first whereupon it closed its wings hurtling toward the ground. It began a series of acrobatics rolling, sideslipping, and making three perfect loops just prior to landing at the nest ledge. The second bird performed the same routine and also ended with three loops.

Nests are built from sticks and range from three to eight feet across. Cliff ledges are favored but either cliffs or trees may be used depending upon availability. Records exist for nests that have been built on the ground. Two eggs are usually laid and are incubated for 43 to 45 days. Siblicide is widely known in this species and more common among golden eagles than bald eagles. Generally, the larger eaglet will attack the smaller one eventually causing its death. This usually occurs when the young are under three weeks of age. The parents make no attempt to distribute food equally among the brood nor do they interfere when one nestling acts aggressively toward another. Eaglets are about 65 days old when they make their first flight.

Habits: Golden eagles are on the wing early in the day. They most commonly hunt the small to medium sized mammals that are about during the subdued light of early morning and late evening. Golden eagles hunt from a soaring flight, by contouring at a low height above the terrain, and from perches. In contouring flight, the eagle flys low and is invisible to the prey until the last moment. Success depends on locating prey that is far enough from its burrow to be surprised in the open and seized by the eagle. Cooperative hunting has been observed among adult eagles where one eagle flushed prey from brush or some other cover and a second eagle hovering above captured it.

Taken from: Handbook of North American Birds, Volume 5. Edited by Ralph S. Palmer. Yale University Press, 1988.