Golden Eagle
FWS Focus

Overview

Characteristics
Overview

Golden eagles are a global species, found world-wide.  They have great significance for many people across the world.  Here in the United States, eagles have been long revered.  Although golden eagles have not suffered the striking decline in population that bald eagles have recovered from, there continues to be concern about their numbers potentially declining across the country.

The most recent survey of golden eagles across four large Bird Conservation Regions in the western United States (80 percent of the species’ range in the lower 48 states is in these Bird Conservation Regions) provided an estimate of 20,722 golden eagles of all ages across the survey area. The best available survey data the U.S. Fish and Wildlife has for golden eagles indicate, at best, a stable population in the four Bird Conservation Regions, with a possible decline in the population of juvenile golden eagles in the southern Rockies. The Service extrapolates those survey data to estimate that there may be 30,000 golden eagles across the United States. However, golden eagle populations are believed to undergo a (roughly) ten year cycle, so having only four years of data (surveys 2006 – 2009) limits the Service’s ability to assess the long-term population trend. Size, shape, and distribution of golden eagle nesting territories vary with topography and prey availability. Disturbances near areas that are important for roosting or foraging can stress eagles to a degree that leads to reproductive failure or mortality elsewhere.

Along with bald eagles, golden eagles are protected by three federal laws: The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Lacey Act. These laws prohibit the possession, use, and sale of eagles or their feathers and parts, as well as a number of other activities, including the transportation of eagles and feathers and parts that have been illegally obtained. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act has prohibited take of bald eagles since 1940 and golden eagles since 1962. Take means pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, destroy, molest, or disturb. Such restrictions help ensure the future viability of eagles in the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has long recognized the religious and cultural significance of eagles to Native Americans and works to accommodate these special needs. The Service operates the National Eagle Repository as a clearinghouse for eagles and eagle parts to provide Native Americans with eagle feathers for religious and cultural use.

Scientific Name

Aquila chrysaetos
Common Name
Golden Eagle
FWS Category
Birds
Kingdom

Location in Taxonomic Tree

Genus

Identification Numbers

TSN:

Characteristics

Characteristic category

Habitat

Characteristics
Habitat

Golden eagles can be found from the tundra, through grasslands, intermittent forested habitat and woodland-brushlands, and south to arid deserts and canyonlands. They’re typically found in open country in the vicinity of hills, cliffs, and bluffs.  Golden eagles are known to be sensitive to human activity and are known to avoid developed areas.

Katzner, T. E., M. N. Kochert, K. Steenhof, C. L. McIntyre, E. H. Craig, and T. A. Miller (2020). Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.goleag.02

Tundra

A level or rolling treeless plain that is characteristic of arctic and subarctic regions with permanently frozen subsoil.

Grassland

Land on which the natural dominant plant forms are grasses and forbs.

Desert

Arid land with usually sparse vegetation.

Mountain

A landmass that projects conspicuously above its surroundings and is higher than a hill.

Rural

Environments influenced by humans in a less substantial way than cities. This can include agriculture, silvaculture, aquaculture, etc.

Characteristic category

Food

Characteristics
Food

Golden eagles are aerial predators and usually eat small to mid-sized prey.  Small mammals such as rabbits, hares, ground squirrels, and prairie dogs are their preferred prey, but they may also eat reptiles, birds, and other mammals such as coyote pups, young deer, and domestic livestock. They are also known to scavenge and eat carrion.

Katzner, T. E., M. N. Kochert, K. Steenhof, C. L. McIntyre, E. H. Craig, and T. A. Miller (2020). Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.goleag.02

Characteristic category

Behavior

Characteristics
Behavior

Golden eagles are often seen soaring alone or in pairs riding wind currents and thermals (upward currents of warm air).  Although they may be high in the sky, they are also often found gliding low over the ground.  When soaring and gliding they often hold their wings in a slight “V” shape. Golden eagles can also be seen perched in trees, on rocks, on human-made towers, and on the ground.  They are visual predators and hunt both while flying and from perches.  When a prey animal is spotted, golden eagles make sharp, fast dives in pursuit of their prey.

Katzner, T. E., M. N. Kochert, K. Steenhof, C. L. McIntyre, E. H. Craig, and T. A. Miller (2020). Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.goleag.02

Characteristic category

Physical Characteristics

Characteristics
Size & Shape

Golden eagles are large, powerful birds. They can have a wingspan of up to seven feet.

Katzner, T. E., M. N. Kochert, K. Steenhof, C. L. McIntyre, E. H. Craig, and T. A. Miller (2020). Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.goleag.02

Weight

Females are larger than males.  Females may weigh up to 14 pounds, while males generally weigh less than ten pounds.

Katzner, T. E., M. N. Kochert, K. Steenhof, C. L. McIntyre, E. H. Craig, and T. A. Miller (2020). Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.goleag.02

Color & Pattern

Adult golden eagles are brown all over with golden feathers on the back of the head and neck.  Juvenile golden eagles also have brown bodies, but with white flecking and patches in the wings and white on the base half of the tail feathers.  The legs of golden eagles are feathered all the way down.  Their bills are dark tipped and yellow at the base.  Golden eagle feet are yellow.

Katzner, T. E., M. N. Kochert, K. Steenhof, C. L. McIntyre, E. H. Craig, and T. A. Miller (2020). Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.goleag.02

Sound

Although not frequently heard by people, golden eagles do make a wide variety of calls for various purposes.  They are, however, a comparatively quiet species.

Katzner, T. E., M. N. Kochert, K. Steenhof, C. L. McIntyre, E. H. Craig, and T. A. Miller (2020). Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.goleag.02

Characteristic category

Lifecycle

Characteristics
Lifecycle

Golden eagles will migrate from the Canadian provinces and northern tier and northeastern states to areas that are milder in the winter and/or may have less snow cover. During winter, golden eagles are found throughout the continental United States. Golden eagles tend to migrate during midday along north-south oriented cliff lines, ridges, and escarpments, where they are buoyed by uplift from deflected winds. Golden eagles will forage during migration flights and use lift from heated air from open landscapes to move efficiently during migration and seasonal movements, gliding from one thermal to the next and sometimes moving in groups with other raptor species.

Katzner, T. E., M. N. Kochert, K. Steenhof, C. L. McIntyre, E. H. Craig, and T. A. Miller (2020). Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.goleag.02

Lifespan

Golden eagles can live up to about 30 years in the wild, and even longer in captivity.

Katzner, T. E., M. N. Kochert, K. Steenhof, C. L. McIntyre, E. H. Craig, and T. A. Miller (2020). Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.goleag.02

Reproduction

Golden eagles generally mate for life, but if an individual in the pair dies, the survivor will accept a new mate.  At the beginning of the breeding season, pairs will perform courtship behaviors and displays.

Golden eagles build nests on cliffs or in the largest trees of forested stands that often afford an unobstructed view of the surrounding habitat.  They may also nest on human-made structures such as towers.  Their nests are usually sticks and soft material added to existing nests, or new nests that are constructed to create strong, flat or bowl-shaped platforms. Nests are very large and heavy, sometimes being five to eight feet in diameter, three to 20 feet deep, and weighing thousands of pounds. Pairs will often use and enlarge the same nest each year, but golden eagles may also have one or more alternate nests within their breeding territory.

Golden eagles typically avoid nesting near urban habitat and do not generally nest in densely forested habitat. Individuals will occasionally nest near semi-urban areas where housing density is low, and in farmland habitat, however golden eagles have been noted to be sensitive to some forms of human presence.

Golden eagles lay one to four eggs, with two eggs being most common and four eggs most rare. The laying interval between eggs ranges between three to five days.  Incubation of the eggs begins with the first egg laid, so eggs may hatch days apart.  Hatching usually occurs after about 41-45 days.  Both males and females incubate the eggs, but the female does the majority of incubation.  The young eagles, often called eaglets, may fledge (leave the nest) anywhere from 6.5 to 12 weeks after hatching.  After beginning to fly and leaving the nest, the eaglets may continue to use the nest as a “home base” for an additional 4-6 weeks where their parents will continue to care for them.  After about six weeks, the young eagles disperse out into the world on their own.

Katzner, T. E., M. N. Kochert, K. Steenhof, C. L. McIntyre, E. H. Craig, and T. A. Miller (2020). Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.goleag.02

Characteristic category

Similar Species

Characteristics
Similar Species

If plumage is not clearly seen, adult golden eagles can be confused with bald eagles.  Young bald eagles less than five years old that do not yet have a fully white head and white tail, but are variably molted brown and white, are also easily confused with golden eagles.  Eagles can also be confused with turkey vultures or black vultures, and if size is misjudged, they can also be confused with larger hawk species such as red-tailed hawks.

Geography

Characteristics
Range

Golden eagles are found worldwide. In North America, they range from Alaska to northern Mexico. In the United States, they’re most commonly found in the western half of the country, however they can be occasionally be seen in eastern locations, particularly during migration or the winter.

Katzner, T. E., M. N. Kochert, K. Steenhof, C. L. McIntyre, E. H. Craig, and T. A. Miller (2020). Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.goleag.02

Import/Export

The import and/or export of golden eagles, or their parts, nests, or eggs is prohibited by law.

16 United States Code 668-668d

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