Photo Credit: Jerry Green

Photo Credit: Carrie Threadgill

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Aquila chrysaetos

OTHER NAMES:  King of Birds, Royal Eagle 

STATUS: Rare in winter, spring, and fall in all regions. HIGH CONSERVATION CONCERN.

DESCRIPTION:  The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is one of North America’s largest raptors with a wingspread of over seven feet and weight of nine to ten pounds.  The golden eagle appears to be dark brown or black when viewed from a distance.  It gets its name from the golden colored “cape” feathers on the back part of the head, neck and upper back of the adult birds.  Its bill and talons are black while the cere (the soft membrane that covers the nostrils) and feet are yellow.  Immature bald eagles are often mistaken for golden eagles because they lack the white head and tail feathers.  The legs of bald eagles are free of feathers, unlike the golden eagle which has feathers along the entire length of the leg to the base of its toes. When soaring, the primary feathers of a golden eagle curve upward on the ends, whereas the bald eagle’s wing feathers are held flat.  Immature bald eagles also show much more white beneath the wings near the base of the primary and secondary flight feathers than does the golden eagle.  On immature golden eagles, the underside of the fourth through the tenth primary feathers shows a light colored “window” on the basal half of the primaries. 

DISTRIBUTION:  The golden eagle is distributed across the northern hemisphere.  They frequent all states of the United States, except Hawaii, but are not considered abundant in any.  Some birds winter in the southeastern U.S.  The golden eagle is an uncommon, late summer through winter, resident in Alabama.  Nesting occurs from Alaska and northern Quebec south to northern Lower California (Baja), central Mexico, western Texas, New York and Maine.

HABITAT:  Golden eagles inhabit areas near grasslands and open pastures where food is plentiful. During the winter, golden eagles often are associated with forested ridgelines and forage along small forest openings. 

FEEDING HABITS:  Golden eagles usually catch all the food they eat, rarely feeding on carrion as is common with the bald eagle.  They prey on species such as rabbits, squirrels, gophers, prairie dogs, fawns of the deer family, antelope fawns, wild turkeys, reptiles and other smaller birds.  Occasionally young domestic livestock are taken as food. In the southeast during the winter, golden eagles often scavenge for carcasses, such as road-kill or shot white-tailed deer and other mammals. 

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY:  The nests of eagles are called aeries.  Golden eagles construct large nests reaching as much as eight to 10 feet across and three to four feet deep.  Nest sites are most often constructed in the tops of tall trees or on narrow ledges of cliffs.  Nests are constructed of large sticks with a layer of smaller sticks on top and finished with grass, fur and/or moss as a liner.  New nests will often be built atop older ones.  Egg-laying generally begins as early as  February or March in lower latitudes and as late as June in the Arctic.  Average clutch size is two but some nests contain as many as four eggs that are laid at three- to four-day intervals.  Incubation begins immediately after the first egg is laid.  Incubation time is 43 to 45 days. The female usually does most of the incubating.  The young hatch several days apart and are altricial. The older nestlings are usually much larger than the younger nestlings, and the older, stronger eaglets often kill their smaller siblings.

The young begin to fly when 72 to 84 days old but depend upon their parents for another three months.  Then the young will either migrate or move out of the parents' territory but overwinter in the area where they were hatched.

The life span of the golden eagle is estimated to be about 30 years. 


Davis, James R. Non-game Birds in Alabama:  The Golden Eagle.

AUTHOR: Kevin Holsonback, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries