Golden eagles are large birds of prey found in the West and across Canada and Alaska. The birds are rare or irregular visitors to the Midwest and Eastern states, although they were found historically in eastern North America. The birds winter in North America from south-central Alaska to central Mexico. Internationally, golden eagles are found in Eurasia and northern Africa.
Golden eagles are birds of open country, not forests, from desert grasslands to above timberline. They build large stick nests in trees or cliff walls where they have plenty of room to maneuver.
Adult golden eagles are nearly alike except the female is larger than the male. Their plumage is dark brown overall, with some white at the base of the tail and golden-to-blond feathers on the back of the head (the nape). Bill and talons are black; cere (soft membrane that covers the nostrils) and feet are yellow. Immature birds have a broad, white tail band with a black edge, and large white patches on the undersides of the wings at the base of the primary feathers. Sometimes a white line extends from this large patch toward the body. In their second year, this white patch becomes smaller. Adults weigh 9 to 12.5 pounds.
Golden eagles are masters at soaring. With their large wingspread -- 6.5 to 7.5 feet -- these birds can soar for long periods of time with little wing flapping. They may catch thermals, rising masses of warm air, to carry them in a spiral fashion upward high into the sky. If the bird spots prey while soaring, it can tuck its wings and swoop at speeds up to 200 mph. If you are close enough, the bird may sound like a low-flying, small airplane. The birds may also hunt from a favorite perch.
Golden eagles use their tremendous eyesight to locate prey. They prefer to attack upwind, to increase their aerodynamic control and maneuverability. The birds prey upon a variety of creatures from prairie dogs, cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits and ground squirrels to grouse, ducks, chukars, reptiles and smaller birds. One study that reviewed the list of golden eagle prey in North America found the birds preyed upon (depending upon their location) 52 species of mammals, 48 birds, 5 reptiles and 2 fish. The birds will also feed on carrion, which sometimes results in death from vehicle collisions or poisoning.
Golden eagles defend large breeding area home ranges. Though their territories may be large, they cannot defend the entire area continuously. Often, when an intruder enters an eagle's home range, the bird will fly in a "roller coaster" flight, by soaring upward to a point, then tucking its wings to descend. This pattern can be repeated in a series; the undulating flight is truly inspiring to watch.
Though nesting territories may be occupied yearly, there are generally several nest sites in the area that are used on different years. These nests may be over 0.5 miles apart. Alternate nests range from 1 to 11 per territory.
Nests are constructed of large twigs or roots and can be lined with moss, bark, fur or other soft material. The nest may become huge, as much as 8 to 10 feet across and 3 to 4 feet deep.
Eggs are laid between February and May (or May to June in the Arctic) commonly two per nest, although up to four eggs could be laid in one clutch. Incubation time is 43 to 45 days. Usually, the female does most of the incubating. Occasionally, depending upon food resources, the older, stronger eaglet may kill its smaller nest mate (siblicide).
The young will fledge when 72 to 84 days old, and depend upon their parents for another 3 months. Then the young will either migrate or move out of the parents' territory but overwinter in their natal area. In winter, large groups of golden eagles may be observed together.
Golden eagles get their name from their goldenish feathers on the backs of their neck. Their scientific name, Aquila chrysaetos (AK-qui-lah kris-AY-ee-tos), is from the Latin word "aquila" meaning eagle, and from the Greek words "chrysos" meaning golden and "aetos" meaning eagle.
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