The Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle

The Golden Eagle is one of the most majestic raptors, soaring in the sky to dizzying heights, utilizing updrafts, and scanning the ground with its powerful vision. Like all other raptors, it possesses eyes that grant it visual acuity at least eight times superior to that of humans. It hunts over an extensive territory, ranging from 30 to 100 square kilometers, making decisive dives for prey.

The eagle captures attention both in flight and when perched, thanks to its piercing gaze, proud posture, and the distinctive beak and talons of a superb predator. Strength, self-assurance, beauty, the art of flight, harmony, and quick reflexes make it the flagship of its ecosystem. Notably, throughout history, the golden eagle has been chosen as a symbol of power, represented on banners and crowns.


It has a length of 74-87 cm; the tail measures from 26 to 33 cm, with a wingspan of 203-220 cm. Its weight varies from 2.9 kg to 6.6 kg; the female is about 20% larger than the male. The upper parts are chestnut brown, with lighter covert feathers and plumage, while the lower parts are dark chestnut. The head is of a golden chestnut color. This characteristic is referred to by the second name “chrysaetos,” which in Greek means “golden eagle.” The coloration varies with age, and the adult plumage is completed by 5 years of age.

The golden eagle is “booted,” meaning, like other eagle species, it is characterized by the presence of feathers on the tarsi, ensuring protection for the extremities from the low temperatures of its habitat. The species is quite long-lived. In the wild, it reaches 15-20 years of age, and there are reports in captivity of individuals living up to 50 years.

The young eagle, just fledged, has a dark brown plumage with distinct white crescent-shaped spots at the center of the wings and a white tail bordered in black. The adult plumage is brown with golden shoulders and nape, hence the English name “Golden Eagle.” The chick is covered in a dense whitish down.

Two magnificent specimens of golden eagle.

In flight, they have raised wings with a slight forward thrust. The Golden Eagle is one of the most powerful birds of prey in the world; its robust structure enables it to successfully attack prey often heavier than itself, and despite its imposing size, it possesses a remarkably agile flight.
The foot has the typical characteristics of raptors that primarily feed on mammals, with relatively short toes and large talons capable of effectively injuring prey after penetrating the fur.

The strong, hooked beak allows it not only to kill medium-sized animals but also to tear apart the carcasses of large animals found already dead. It emits few calls, except during the breeding season, which are similar to dog-like barks.

Distribution of the Golden Eagle

Once, the golden eagle inhabited temperate zones of Europe, the northern part of Asia, North America, North Africa, and Japan. In many of these regions, the eagle is now only present in mountainous areas, but in previous centuries, it also nested in plains and forests. It is absent in Iceland and Ireland, where reintroduction efforts have been underway since 2001 with 35 released birds. In Italy, it is found on the Apennine ridge, the Alpine arc, the Dolomites, and in the mountains of Sardinia and Sicily. The northern limit of the eagle’s range is the Svalbard Islands (81°N).

Subspecies:

  • A. c. chrysaetos – the typical subspecies, found throughout Europe excluding the Iberian Peninsula and in Siberia. It measures 82-84 cm and is the one present in zoos.
  • A. c. canadensis – slightly smaller than the previous subspecies, it lives in North America but occasionally ventures into Mexico. It is distinguished by a darker tail and sharper talons.
  • A. c. homeryi – found in the Iberian Peninsula, Africa, and the Middle East, it is the smallest subspecies. Otherwise, it is similar to the typical subspecies, except for a lighter head.
  • A. c. japonica – a rarer and endangered subspecies, limited to Korea and Japan and extinct in Manchuria. Measuring 80-85 cm, it is the most adapted to cold climates.
  • A. c. daphanea – present in the former Soviet Central Asia (Uzbekistan and neighboring countries, east to Manchuria and south to the Indian Himalayas), it can reach 90 cm in length and 7 kg in weight.
  • A. c. kamtschatica – slightly smaller than the previous subspecies, it is distributed from the Altai Mountains to Kamchatka.

Ecology

It frequents a wide range of open or semi-wooded environments, and its ecological adaptability has allowed it to colonize a vast area both in Eurasia and North America. In Italy, it is present in all the major mountain ranges (the Alps, the Apennines, Sardinian, and Sicilian mountains).

A territory frequented by a pair of Golden Eagles typically consists of a nesting site with rocky walls hosting the nests and a series of hunting territories, often with little or no vegetation, usually located on the periphery compared to the nesting sector.

The nests are placed below the summer hunting territories to facilitate the transport of heavy prey to the young; therefore, nests should not be sought near the peaks, as popular tradition often suggests, but mainly around 1700-2200 m. Altitude records of 2500-2700 m, reported in the past in the Aosta Valley, are probably the result of repeated persecutions targeting nests located in more accessible locations.

The nests are placed below the summer hunting territories to facilitate the transport of heavy prey to the young; therefore, nests should not be sought near the peaks, as popular tradition often suggests, but mainly around 1700-2200 m. Altitude records of 2500-2700 m, reported in the past in the Aosta Valley, are probably the result of repeated persecutions targeting nests located in more accessible locations.

Reproduction of the Golden Eagle

Faithful for life, the male and female golden eagle, once a pair is formed and territory is conquered, remain resident for many years, constructing around ten nests in the vicinity, on the sheer walls of cliffs, or more rarely, among the branches of the tallest trees. Each year, they choose the most suitable nest. However, the nests are always built lower in altitude compared to the hunting grounds to avoid strenuous climbs with prey in their talons.

Occhio d' aquila
Eagle eye

Classificazione scientifica

Phylum: Chordata
Superclass: Tetrapoda
Class: Aves
Subclass: Neornithes
Order: Accipitriformes
Species: A. chrysaetos
Family: Accipitridae
Subfamily: Aquilinae
Genus: Aquila


Territory control

The territory ranges from 40 to 180 square kilometers, and control is evenly shared between the male and female. Most often, it involves aerial displays (circling flights, maneuvers) along the boundaries of the territory to signal to other eagles the actual borders.

The fascinating mating ritual flight takes place in March, is known as the sky dance. This dance, which continues for several days, involves both individuals in spectacular aerobatics, often with the female performing upside-down flight while the male appears to dive toward her, or with prey exchanges in flight or death spirals. The dance alternates with nest restoration work, and only at the end is the final nest chosen. These nests often reach two meters in diameter, and due to annual renovations, they can have a thickness of one meter.

After mating, which always occurs on the ground, follows the laying of eggs (January in warmer areas and May in colder ones), usually two eggs spaced 2-5 days apart. During this period, the male is less present but reappears immediately at hatching (after 43-45 days of incubation) to bring food to both the mother and the two chicks born between April and May, a few days apart. The older chick almost always kills the other. After two months, the chick becomes an eaglet and begins practicing flight on the edge of the nest. The first flight occurs at 75 days, and after 160-170 days from birth, it becomes independent. During this period, it is taken by the parents outside the borders of the native territory and becomes nomadic until, around 3-6 years old, now capable of procreation, it forms a new family unit.

General behavior

The eagle has two methods of hunting: ambush and aerial. Typically, it seeks to surprise its prey. They usually hunt in pairs: one eagle flies low to scare the prey, while the other from above tries to catch it.
During the day, the eagle is very calm, except in the central part of the day. Many eagles tend to move towards warmer areas.

Diet of the golden eagle

The eagle feeds on mammals and birds, depending on the region. In some areas, it also consumes reptiles.
Among mammals, it prefers rodents, hares, marmots, wild rabbits, and squirrels.
Among birds, it primarily feeds on game birds and also carrion in winter. For reptiles, it preys on snakes, turtles (which it captures and smashes on rocks), and sometimes, if nothing else is available, lizards and other saurians. Often, the two partners hunt together and play with the prey. The young eagles need to consume a lot of food, but often only the firstborn survives since it monopolizes all the food.
The eagle can lift 18 kg of prey, almost three times its maximum weight (foxes, young ungulates), and regularly supplements its diet with remains of dead animals (especially ungulates that succumb to the harsh winter conditions).

Population and conservation status

The eagle is decreasing in many areas due to persecution; where protected, its population is increasing.
It is mostly present in the Alps (200 nesting pairs), the Apennines (50 pairs), Sicily (10 pairs), and Sardinia (30 pairs).
In the Cortina area, there are currently 3 pairs.
The population is slowly increasing in Italy, Bulgaria, Turkey, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, China, Ukraine, and Scotland. The populations in the United States, Canada, Japan, Greece, and Scandinavia have experienced more significant growth. Spain and Korea have declining eagle populations, while in Uzbekistan, the species appears close to extinction. The main factors affecting this species include deforestation, hunting, and nestling capture.

Call of the eagle

The call of the eagle is the cry, also known as a scream; therefore, it is said that eagles cry or scream.

The symbolism of the Golden Eagle

The golden eagle plays a crucial role in the history of European symbolism. For the Greeks, it was a symbol of Zeus, representing his fundamental values. Its association with the father of the gods led the Romans to choose it as an emblem since the time of the Republic. With the division of the Empire into two parts decreed by the Roman Emperor Theodosius for his sons, Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West, the Roman eagle was henceforth depicted as a single body (the Roman Empire) with two heads (East and West), as can still be seen in emblems inspired by the Roman Empire.

The eagle was often adopted by nations seeking to emulate the image of Rome, including Charlemagne, Napoleon, Eastern European states, Hitler, Mussolini, and finally, the USA. The eagle also appears on the national flag of Kazakhstan.
The elevation of the eagle was later carried forward by the Catholic Church, taking inspiration from its symbolism of spirituality (the eagle is the symbol of the evangelist John, the most spiritual of the four). Dante references it in the sixth canto of Paradise, praising its values.

Its instrumentalization throughout history has paradoxically led some to view it negatively, as it was used as a symbol by totalitarian states that ravaged Europe in the 20th century. Here in Cortina, if you pay attention, you can find the emblem of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the double-headed eagle. Today, however, it is still used in many companies, societies, and countries as a symbol of pride, nobility, divinity, and honor (as well as being used by farmers to scare away foxes when they approach poultry).