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Golden Eagle opening pages

"Arizona's 'Other' Eagle," by Kyle McCarty

This article was published in the September-October 2007 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. Support Arizona's award-winning wildlife magazine — order online.

One windy autumn day as a friend and I watched migrating hawks, a golden eagle appeared over the mountaintop one-half mile away, gliding on angled wings. Without ever flapping or changing course, it passed over us on its way south. My friend turned to me, smiled, and said, “You gotta love that.”

I know what he meant. The strongest connections with nature occur in these simple moments when the world we know is confronted by something mysterious like a wild-flying golden eagle.

There is something about them, an indescribable presence that grabs our attention. Of course, a bird with a 7-foot wingspan, 2-inch talons, and a weight of up to 13 pounds is hard to ignore, but our interest goes beyond the measurements. Seeing eagles makes us wonder: What would it be like to soar between the clouds?

The King of Birds

In Arizona, there are two species of eagles. The bald eagle is the one most familiar to us. Less is known about Arizona’s “other” eagle, the golden eagle. We do know goldens are widespread in the state, from low desert areas to high mountain terrain.

The best way to understand golden eagles is to spend a lot of time watching them. This is easier said than done, because they prefer wild country and most often nest on cliffs in out-of-the-way mountains and canyons. However, golden eagles sometimes can be found nesting in trees among rolling hills near open foraging grounds. Outside the nesting season, they are found in just about any kind of open or semi-open landscape.

What attracts golden eagles to a particular area? As with other raptors, an abundance of their favorite food ranks high; rugged terrain provides a variety of places for eagles to hunt. If you know where to find a lot of jackrabbits, cottontails, ground squirrels or prairie dogs, then chances are a golden eagle is not far away. “Not far away” is a relative term, though, because eagles can cover miles as they soar and float on the wind while hunting.

A young eagle learns hunting skills from its parents after it fledges from the nest. A month or two later the young eagle moves out and becomes independent, thereafter hunting on its own. Instances in which eagles have been reported attacking large animals like deer may be cases of a juvenile eagle discovering its limits. Or they may occur when an experienced eagle takes advantage of an animal that is somehow vulnerable, perhaps injured. In any case, eagles eventually learn the best combinations of hunting strategy, prey behavior, time of day and weather for finding prey. Mated pairs of goldens sometimes hunt as a team; one of them flushes the prey out and the other tackles it.

Pairs typically keep a bond with each other throughout the year. In Arizona, golden eagles use sticks and twigs in nest construction, and select various grasses or even shredded yucca for lining. The nesting season, from when eggs are laid to when eaglets gain their independence, begins in February at lower elevations or as late as April at higher ones. It can last more than six months. Eagle pairs may occupy the same nest year after year, but a pair often maintains multiple nests within a territory, with only one nest being active in any given year. They build nests on cliffs or trees that are at least partly sheltered from heat, wind and cold.

Golden eagles cope with the heat in Arizona deserts by seeking shade, “panting” and conserving water. They don’t lose a lot of water in excretion or breathing as we do. Amazingly, nestlings get all of their water from the food provided to them. Feathers act as a shield against direct sunlight, so adults must shade nestlings until they grow enough feathers of their own. On the hottest days, golden eagles are active mainly in the early morning and evening hours, staying perched for much of the day. They usually spend time each day soaring over the nest area and may complete a series of dives and upward swoops to assert their claim on territory or to express courtship.

Protection for “The King”

While doing nest surveys a few years ago, I was intrigued by the reactions of golden eagles to my presence. Many were extremely secretive, even when I knew where to look. It might be expected that birds of such size would defend their nests and young fiercely from human intruders. Instead, they usually flew away. However, some goldens remained perched and watched my every move; or, they chose to soar overhead, sometimes vocalizing (but mostly not). Each one had its own way of getting through life.

It is no surprise, then, that people respond to golden eagles in different ways and label them with just as many attitudes as they do adjectives. In 1937, Arthur C. Bent wrote admiringly of the golden eagle in his “Life Histories of North American Birds” series:

“This magnificent eagle has long been named the King of Birds, and it well deserves the title. It is majestic in flight, regal in appearance, dignified in manner, and crowned with a shower of golden hackles about its royal head  ... Its hunting is like that of the noble falcons, clean, spirited, and dashing.”

But Bent’s admiration has been the exception, rather than the rule. Golden eagles historically have been viewed with contempt. They had a reputation among some people for bloodthirsty killing of domestic animals, especially sheep. In response, thousands of golden eagles were shot in the West despite their low impacts on livestock, before federal protection laws were enforced. Eagles also died from feeding on poisoned carcasses meant to control predators, such as coyotes. Though golden eagles are protected by law, a few are still illegally shot.

Golden eagles face other threats, including lead exposure associated with ingesting spent ammunition found in animal carcasses on which they sometimes feed. Ingested lead may remain in the eagle’s body and interfere with reproduction, or contribute to death through increased likelihood of starvation or disease. Eagles also die in collisions with cars, power lines, wind turbines and other structures. Power lines can electrocute eagles, and utility companies have had to make efforts to fit poles and towers with protective devices. Also, human disturbances during nesting, if severe enough, may cause the nesting attempt to fail.

Some biologists think golden eagles currently are in trouble and declining throughout the West. They cite habitat loss and alteration, reduction of prey populations and increasing pressure from human activity for this decline.

There are no long-term studies to show what has happened to the golden eagle population in response to various threats in Arizona’s past. From previous surveys, we know of about 150 records of golden eagle nests in the state. Quite a few of these had not been visited for years, so in the spring of 2006, Arizona Game and Fish Department biologists began searching these areas to understand the current status of Arizona’s golden eagle population. We will continue exploring other historic breeding areas and looking for new nests, to gather a more complete count of golden eagles so ultimately we can take appropriate steps toward protecting them.

We also need to collect other pieces of the puzzle: How large are their territories? What are the most important factors causing death? Where do they migrate? The answers may differ slightly from region to region and create a complicated picture. Our understanding of golden eagles in Arizona has a long way to go.

With so many potential dangers, there is enough cause to be concerned about golden eagles in Arizona. They need our attention, although it is not time for alarm. In fact, the success achieved in the recovery of bald eagles has shown that people can make a positive difference. Nature can be resilient if given a chance. Many success stories in conservation prove that even small steps can lead to big things.

Sometimes it just takes making a personal decision — seeing the importance of sharing the world with eagles and how they enrich it — before we can act on their behalf. When I think back to that day on the mountaintop with my friend, I recall watching two more migrating golden eagles flying toward us from the horizon as evening fell. The soft rays of the setting sun reflected brilliantly on their namesake golden crown and neck feathers as we watched the birds pass. This time neither one of us spoke, both lost in thought. The eagles had our full attention.

This article was published in the September-October 2007 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. To subscribe or give a gift, order online.

Golden Eagles in Arizona

  • Nest-building and courtship: November–February
  • Egg-laying: February–April
  • Number of eggs: 1 to 3 (usually 2)
  • Time to hatch: 6 weeks
  • Hatching: April–May
  • Fledging: May–July
  • Age at fledging: 9.5 to 10 weeks old
  • Weight: 7–13.5 lbs. (females are bigger)
  • Wingspan: 6–7 ft.

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