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Golden Eagle


Golden eagle held by retired DEC
wildlife biologist Scott VanArsdale

Scientific Name: Aquila chrysaetos

New York Status: Endangered
Federal Status: Not Listed

Description

This majestic "upland" eagle is aptly named for its golden-brown plumage, with head and nape feathers a slightly lighter, gold color. Measuring 27-33 inches in length, the golden eagle has a wingspan of 78 inches and weighs 7-14 pounds. Adults wield a bill which is a bit smaller and darker than that of our only other eagle, the bald eagle. The immature golden eagle in flight can be distinguished from the immature bald eagle by the presence of distinct white patches on the underside of the wing and by a broad white tail with a dark band.

The most notable field mark distinguishing the bald eagle from the golden eagle is the presence of extensive feathering on the legs of golden eagles. Should you be in a position to see it, the feathers go all the way down to the toes on a golden eagle, while the bald eagle has a considerable amount of exposed leg showing. Favored prey items include rodents, rabbits, birds, and reptiles, as well as carrion.

Life History

The golden eagle is long-lived, with a life span in the wild believed to be 30 years or more. It is also believed a pair mates for life and defends a selected territory against other golden eagles. Both the male and female participate in nest building, occasionally in a tree but more often on a cliff ledge, commonly with the protection of an overhanging tree or rock. The nest is made of large sticks and often contains aromatic leaves which may serve to deter insects. Since the same nest may be used and added to (decorated) year after year, they sometimes get quite large.

The single clutch consists of 1-2 (rarely 3) eggs which hatch after an incubation period of 35-45 days. Eaglets fledge in 65-75 days. The male provides some help with incubation, but is the major food provider during incubation and chick rearing. Young reach sexual maturity and obtain adult coloration at about 5 years of age.

Distribution and Habitat

map showing the range of golden eagles in the United States and Canada
Golden eagle range map from Birds of the World,
maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The golden eagle is distributed worldwide throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Golden eagles are typically associated with the plains of the western United States, and are fairly common in our western states, Alaska, and Western Canada. Never abundant in the Eastern U.S., this species is now virtually extirpated as a breeding bird east of the Mississippi River. Golden eagles once nested at no more than a dozen or so sites in the Adirondacks of New York, in Maine, and in New Hampshire.

They are believed to still nest in some numbers in Eastern Canada, as evidenced by hundreds of golden eagles appearing during the fall and spring migrations in the eastern U.S. Preferred habitats include generally open areas: tundra, grasslands and deserts. The golden eagle feeds primarily on live mammals such as ground squirrels and marmots, found in their preferred upland habitats. In winter they will feed on carrion and waterfowl in the east, often associated with wintering bald eagles.

Status

Golden eagles have been protected in the United States since 1963. During the 1950s, an estimated 20,000 eagles were destroyed by ranchers, particularly sheep farmers who perceived them to be a threat. In the northeastern states, remnant populations declined drastically. Although sightings occur every year in New York, most are during migration and no active nests are currently known. A nest was built in the winter of 1992-93 by a wintering pair in southeastern New York, but has never been used as the pair departs every spring to return the next fall.

The reasons for the decline of this species in the east are not clear. Various factors seem to be involved, including shooting, accidental trapping, human disturbance at nest sites, loss of essential open hunting habitat due to succession and fire control, and possibly pesticide contamination (especially by DDT).

Management and Research Needs

DEC continues to monitor historic eyries (large bird of prey nests) in hopes that they may be used again and have been investigating the golden eagle's decline as well as the factors that may be involved in its breeding scarcity in New York.

Hacking (leaves DEC website), a technique used successfully in New York to restore the bald eagle, has been considered for goldens, but has not been pursued due to the uncertainty of why golden eagles disappeared from New York and whether these conditions still remain. Hacking of goldens is being conducted in a few southeastern states during the 1990s and at least one pair has nested in there in recent years.


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