Golden eagles are a global species, found worldwide, and 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 since recovered from, there continues to be concern that golden eagle population numbers may be potentially declining across the country.
The most recent survey of golden eagles across four large bird conservation regions in the western United States, which makes up 80% of the species’ range in contiguous United States, provided an estimate of 20,722 golden eagles of all ages. The best available survey data we have for this species indicate, at best, a stable population in this geography, with a possible decline in the population of juvenile golden eagles in the southern Rocky Mountains.
Based on these data, we can estimate that there are roughly 30,000 golden eagles across the United States. However, golden eagle populations are believed to undergo a roughly 10 year cycle. That said, having only four years of data from the survey years of 2006 to 2009, limits our 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. A number of other activities, including the transportation of eagles and feathers and parts that have been illegally obtained, are also prohibited under these laws. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act has prohibited take of bald eagles since 1940 and golden eagles since 1962. Take means to pursue, shoot, shoot at, poison, wound, kill, capture, trap, collect, destroy, molest or disturb. Such restrictions help to ensure the future viability of eagles in the wild. We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have long recognized the religious and cultural significance of eagles to Native Americans and we work to accommodate these special needs. In doing so, we operate the National Eagle Repository, as a clearinghouse for eagles and eagle parts, to provide Native Americans with eagle feathers for religious and cultural use.
If plumage is not clearly seen, adult golden eagles can be confused with bald eagles. Young bald eagles that are less than 5 years old, and do not yet have a fully white head and white tail, yet 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 like red-tailed hawks.
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.
Land on which the natural dominant plant forms are grasses and forbs.
Arid land with usually sparse vegetation.
A level or rolling treeless plain that is characteristic of arctic and subarctic regions with permanently frozen subsoil.
A landmass that projects conspicuously above its surroundings and is higher than a hill.
Environments influenced by humans in a less substantial way than cities. This can include agriculture, silvaculture, aquaculture, etc.
Golden eagles are aerial predators and usually eat small to mid-sized prey. Small mammals like rabbits, hares, ground squirrels and prairie dogs are their preferred prey. They may also eat reptiles, birds and other mammals, like coyote pups, young deer and domestic livestock. They are also known to scavenge and eat carrion.
Golden eagles are often seen soaring alone or in pairs riding wind currents and thermals, meaning 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.
Golden eagles are large, powerful birds.
Wingspan: Up to 7 feet
Females are larger than males.
Females: Up to 14 pounds
Males: Less than 10 pounds
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.
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.
Golden eagles will migrate from the Canadian provinces, as well as the northern tier and northeastern United 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. These topographies offer uplift from deflected winds and help eagles seek out food. Golden eagles will forage during migration flights and use this uplift from heated air, which also comes from open landscapes, to move efficiently during migration and seasonal movements. In doing so, they often glide from one thermal to the next and sometimes move in groups with other raptor species.
Golden eagles can live up to about 30 years in the wild, and even longer in captivity.
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 5 to 8 feet in diameter, 3 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, as well as 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 to 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, meaning leave the nest, anywhere from six and a half 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 four to six 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.