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The Great Golden Eagle

The natural world has always been of terrific interest to me, especially when it comes to animals like the great horned owl.

Aquila chrysaetos canadensis - The golden eagle in flight


Now you may think, as I once did, that there would be a clear answer to the question about whether the golden eagle or the bald eagle is the larger bird. Sorry, but the answer seems to be more about opinion as to what the term 'larger' actually means. I think the path to peace here is to simply consider the two birds of the same size. Yes, they are relatively the same size.

What is a lot less argumentative and a lot more interesting is this: the bald eagle and the golden eagle aren't much related. Nope, they aren't cousins. Golden eagles are closer relatives to hawks than they are to bald eagles.

Yes, they are both mega predatory raptors. Magestic birds the likes of which you hope to see often, but likely do not. Widely spread, and not limited at all to North America, these raptors have forever been the prize or the dream of every man who fancied himself a falconer. Eagles were forever coveted by kings and any and every lesser member of anyone's nobility. Falconry isn't a lost art or pursuit or sport, but in the days long past, it was as important to a king as a super bowl win is to the modern football team owner.

Plainly, it was dangerous for some to own a golden eagle for use in falconry. The bird is powerful, aggressive, and so the birds are dangerous. What a terrific status symbol for a ruler! Owning a golden eagle must have been sort of like owning a Ferrari would be today. The difference is you don't feed your family with meat your Ferrari killed. It is plain that having an eagle trained to kill a deer was more than just a status symbol.

This image serves for scale - this is one large raptor

Aquila chrysaetos canadensis

Aquila chrysaetos canadensis

Highly trainable, widely distributed, the golden eagle is also one of the most extensively studied birds in this world. Revered the world over as a semi-mystical creature, the golden eagle has power and ferocity in spades. This bird is so powerful it can literally kill much much larger predators. While it may be hard to believe, the golden eagle can and will kill grey wolves. A wolf so greatly outweighs the eagle this all seems improbable, however, when one considers the power of the eagle's talons, the dagger that is its beak, and the fact the bird can dive into the wolf at speeds well in excess of one hundred miles per hour - the picture of how a golden eagle can kill a grey wolf becomes much more clear.

Wolves are hardly the largest animals a golden eagle can kill. Trained eagles regularly kill deer. A deer may outweigh the golden eagle that kills it by more than ten times.

The initial shock of the high speed diving eagle crashing into the body of the much larger prey could at times kill the prey, think of a broken back; or even a broken neck, depending on where on the body the diving eagle slams into the creature. The thing is, the talons of the golden eagle can rip open a jugular, and grabbing a thing by the head often subdues a thing quickly. The golden eagles aren't too particular about anyone's feelings as to what is or isn't cruel, as the eagle will start eating a creature while it is very much alive. Often, an animal a golden eagle has selected as prey will die from blood loss while being eaten alive.

Golden eagles not trained for falconry don't normally attack and kill things so large as a deer or a wolf. No, the golden eagles in the wild subsist mostly on smaller mammals. Rats, mice, rabbits of all sorts - those are what the golden eagles prefer to eat.

A golden eagle assaults a grey wolf

This won't be a good day for our friend the grey wolf.

This won't be a good day for our friend the grey wolf.

How big is the golden eagle? Big

Golden eagles are very large. Just how large depends on where your golden eagle lives. They grow larger in some localities than in others. The golden eagle ranges in size, nose/beak to tail from twenty six to forty inches. The wingspan, tip to tip, can range from five foot eleven inches to seven foot eight inches.

What about weight? They weigh quite a lot for birds - anywhere from nine to fourteen pounds. Going by weight, then on average the golden eagle is larger than the bald eagle. Going by length of wingspan - then the bald eagle is definitely the bigger bird of prey. So far as eagles go, neither the golden eagle or the bald eagle is particularly huge. The harpy eagle is far, far larger than either.

Male and female golden eagles, she's the larger of the two

What a cute and happy couple!

What a cute and happy couple!

The golden eagles are monogamous and mate for life. The courtship of the golden eagles, as is usual, involves the males displaying their athletic prowess before the female. This involves dropping things from way high in the air, and then the male dives down very quickly to catch what he dropped. This display shows the female how proficient a hunter the male is, and thus, how well he can feed her and her chicks. To be sure, the female eagle will do something very similar in return. Perhaps they mate for life because they've made sure in advance they are each up to par with the other. Not a bad system.

While the eagle pairs mate for life, this sentimentality doesn't relate to their eyries, as the duo will build many eyries within their territories during the course of their lives together. They'll alternate which one is in use according to their whims and considerations.

A golden eagle eyrie with chicks

As you can see, the eyrie is safe way up high

As you can see, the eyrie is safe way up high

Don't worry your pretty head none about accidentally getting too close to a golden eagle's nest, and angering the powerful birds. It isn't going to happen. You see, the golden eagles place their eyries or nests in places specifically chosen for its inaccessibility by mammalian predators, including the two leg varieties. The nests will be high, but they won't be at the maximum available height. You see, the eagles would like to also be able to hunt up higher than their nests, and then bring the prey down to their homes. This is advantageous as it is easier to fly a heavy load downward than it is to fly it upwards.

The golden eagles of this world are widespread across our Earth. In areas where there are no cliffs to build the nests upon, the birds will take very tall trees as homesteads. These trees will be found at high elevations. These birds don't reside in anyone's valley. Very rarely, golden eagles will use man made structures to build their eyries upon. Think tall electrical transmission towers. Good thinking, on the part of these birds, to utilize what is available, and probably sturdier than a tree. Electrical transmission towers are also structures less likely to burn than, say, another favorite in California, the Douglas fir tree.

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Golden eagle chicks

Ain't they cute?

Ain't they cute?

Golden eagle copulation usually lasts an entire ten to twenty exciting and pleasing seconds. This copulating happens forty to fifty days before the laying of the eggs. The norm is for two eagles, a male and a female, to mate and mate for life. That is the norm, not a rule. It has been reported that threesome coupling happens, but this is very very rare, and its causes aren't known with any degree of certainty. Another irregularity is when mates mate outside the context of fertilizing eggs. Again, additional sex, sex outside the context of reproduction has or does happen with golden eagles, but rarely. It is suspected this happens for the purpose of relationship maintenance.

The dates the eggs are laid post mating correlates exactly to latitudes in which the eagles reside. Usually the eggs come in clutches of between one and four eggs. A group, or clutch of eggs numbering eight was recorded once; but that is an irregularity.

Female golden eagles are expected to feed themselves except when she lays her eggs, following that she does most of the incubation and the male provides her meals for her troubles. They're in this together, of course, and usually for the rest of their lives too.

When all the chicks are hatched, it's not always they all make it. In fact, the norm is that some hatchlings do not live long. Golden eagle chicks are famous for the murder of their siblings. This isn't unusual, the first to hatch often kills the second, it isn't unusual but it is by no means any sort of rule.

Golden Eagle Fledgling - ready to leave the nest


Golden eagle chicks weigh a few ounces at birth, but for the first ten days or so they're too weak to move around much. They do lots of eating, however, and they grow fast. The first goal of the chicks is to stand, and this happens around the twentieth day. Once standing is achieved, they try to keep standing for long periods of time, the legs, of course, will be extremely important to the birds.

During the nesting period the male golden eagle spends about three quarters of his time away from the nest. The female will be spending at least forty five days in the nest with the chicks. During this time the chicks spend most of their time eating and growing. Soon the chicks will be spreading their wings to 'protect' their food scraps, following that, the next big step is learning to defecate over the edge of the eyrie.

The golden eagle chicks hatch with snow white feathers. Around fifty days after hatching they start sprouting some golden brown feathers that mix in with the white ones. Between the sixtieth day and the eightieth, the birds are officially fledgling - able to fly. Soon the eagle will become an avian apex predator.

Golden eagle attacks and kills deer

What animal can kill a golden eagle?

There are videos on the web showing golden eagles going so far as to attack grizzly bears. The bear in question, a creature weighing somewhere between five hundred and a thousand pounds, flees the scene of the eagle attack with great haste. Maybe the grizzly was getting too close to a nest, or maybe the bear was getting too close to something the eagle had just killed to eat, but was too heavy to be carried off in the air. In any event, if a golden eagle can put fear into a grizzly bear, the question to ask is: what is the golden eagle afraid of?

The golden eagle may not be afraid of anything at all, but this doesn't mean it doesn't face real threats in the wild. Golden eagles can be killed, and they do get killed - sometimes by creatures they normally kill themselves, and with ease. It's easy to see how an eagle attacking a deer's fawn could wind up knocked to the ground and stomped to death by a mother deer. This sort of thing happens. Other golden eagle conquerors include the wolverine, the snow leopard, the cougar, brown bears, and white tailed eagles.

There are other animals that can kill the golden eagle. Can you imagine an eagle doing very well after attacking a porcupine? No, you probably can not - and yes, golden eagles die from their injuries after attacking porcupines. Sometimes ravens will get at and eat golden eagle eggs. It is rare that anything other than other birds can ever gain access to a golden eagle's nest. In the Americas the great horned owl can and will attack a golden eagle's nest if and whenever it gets a chance, and of course the chicks will forever be meat to the horned owl's eyes too.

There are various and sundry diseases and such that kill golden eagles. Sometimes the fledglings simply starve to death from lack of skill. If things do go well though, golden eagles can live a nice long happy life. The longest lived golden eagle known of lived 36 years in the wild. In captivity golden eagles can live, so far as has been recorded, forty six years.

Haliaeetus albicilla - NOT a golden eagle, this is the white tailed eagle

White tailed eagles are Eurasian eagles known to sometimes kill golden eagles.

White tailed eagles are Eurasian eagles known to sometimes kill golden eagles.

Species of Golden Eagles

As stated somewhere in the text above, golden eagles live over large swaths of the planet Earth. So, as it goes with time and evolution, there are many species of golden eagle. Some are larger than others, and there are other smaller differences. Obviously, there will be dietary differences, and you always adapt towards your diet, or in the case of the golden eagles, your prey.

All golden eagles are of the Genus Aquila. The Genus Aquila is the Genus of true eagles, and it may come as somewhat a shock to some that big glorious birds such as the American bald eagle is not by this definition a 'true eagle,' but instead is a fisher eagle.

Some biologist maintain there are only truly two sub-species of golden eagle. Despite all of this, here is the list of broadly accepted sub-species of these glorious golden birds:

Aquila chrysaetos chrysaetos- these are the European golden eagles, the very birds that so impressed the nations they used them as military symbols.

Aquila chrysaetos homeyeri- these are also European golden eagles, but these are found only on the Iberian peninsula, and the island of Crete. Then, there is a very isolated populations of golden eagles in Ethiopia's Bale Mountains.

Aquila chrysaetos daphanea- These are the Asian golden eagles. The Asian golden eagles are larger than any other sub-species of golden eagle. These golden eagles are also less golden than others, and often have black feathers on their backs.

Aquila chrysaetos japonica- The Japanese golden eagle. These eagles are found in the northern areas of Japan, and also in Korea. These golden eagles have more white feathers on their bodies than others, mostly the white feathers are on the inner portions of the bird's tail.

Aquila chrysaetos canadensis- The American golden eagles. These eagles live from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. Rule breakers, these eagles like to breat Bergmann’s rule.

Aquila chrysaetos kamtschatica- Another Asian golden eagle, usually thought of as the Siberian golden eagle. Due to proximity and surely some overlap, these eagles will be close genetic relatives of the American golden eagles.

A golden eagle made of gold - used as a military battle standard

 “You don’t give up your colours easily – that’s why there are only six of these Eagle Standards in captivity. "

“You don’t give up your colours easily – that’s why there are only six of these Eagle Standards in captivity. "

Nazi era golden eagle of gold


Golden eagles as symbols for military purposes, national pride, and religions

Besides being the bird cherished by kings and emperors for falconry, the golden eagle is featured on many a nation's coat of arms, or national flags. Humans have been fascinated by the massive raptors dominating the skies and the much larger prey they devour from the lands for a very long time. Humans are going to be fascinated by eagles for yet a long time to come as well.

Diverse nations using the golden eagle as a national animal include Germany, Albania, Austria, Mexico, and Kazakhstan. If not the national symbol, the golden eagle serves as a motif in many another nation's national symbols.

There was never anything remotely unique in the USA's choice of the bald eagle as its national animal symbol, as using eagles as symbols was old hat. The only thing the US did was choose a peculiar eagle native to the place over the also present golden eagle. Of course the modern American empire was thought to be a reincarnation of the Roman republic.

You wonder where the Genus name 'Aquila' came from? The term came from the Roman name for a military standard. The Roman legions were often recognized by their golden aquila eagles, modeled after the golden eagles of Italy, one and all.

German militarism has forever used the eagle as its dominant military symbol, and Hitler adored it only second to the swastika. Dominant European powers recognized, always, the greatness that was Egypt in antiquity. It's little wonder the Egyptians also used golden eagles as symbols of power. Arab nations have been in on the golden eagle as well, and dating all the way back to Saladin.

Eagles are present as symbols throughout the Jewish Torah and the Christian Bible. They are more present in the Torah. While the Hebrews of old saw lots of eagles other than golden eagles, surely some of the references to eagles in the Torah appeared due to the presence of the majestic golden eagle. While the Jewish Torah or Old Testament is still widely revered today, it was hardly the first religious use of the eagle in religious symbolism.

Ancient Hellenistic religions often referred to eagles - the eagle was the symbol of Zeus. The eagles are present in Norse mythology, Celtic mythology, Welsh mythology, and from there became prominent in Tolkien's middle Earth.

The middle east and Europe weren't unique in their reverence for eagles either, as Native American cultures adored golden eagles as well.

Today golden eagle populations are in decline. It is illegal in the USA and Canada to kill any eagle, or possess the body or parts of the body of any eagle. I suppose persons who shoot down an eagle feel powerful for this - but I would encourage anyone who suspects someone of killing eagles to report these felony crimes, as crimes against nature are crimes against us all. I hope this has proved interesting or useful to someone. Thanks for reading.

The Asian golden eagle in flight


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Wesman Todd Shaw


Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on January 28, 2016:

Thanks ma. Maybe I should turn my account into a nature safari.

Patricia Shaw on January 28, 2016:

Very interesting read! I enjoyed your article and learned from it. Great writing.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on January 27, 2016:

Wow! That's sweet! I've never seen a bird of that size flying around. The golden eagle would be approximately the same size as the bald eagle.

Biggest bird I ever get to see here in my part of Texas is a turkey vulture.

Thanks Diana!

Diana L Pierce from Potter County, Pa. on January 27, 2016:

Very informative. I'm not sure if I ever saw golden eagle here because hawks are common and the difference would not had been clear to me.We do see bald eagles here every now and then. Good hub.

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