The Golden Eagle, King of the Raptors

By William Leroy for Wild At Heart

Golden Eagle

Of all the states, Arizona is home to the largest number of species of birds in the U.S. These birds can vary from residents, that stay all year around, to breeding birds, that spend a good part of the growing season in Arizona to raise their young, migrants who pass through Arizona with the seasons, to wintering birds who like to spend a good part of the winter in Arizona to escape colder conditions up north. Perhaps our most impressive year round raptor is the Golden Eagle.

The Golden Eagle is one of the largest, fastest, nimblest raptors in North America. Lustrous gold feathers gleam on the back of its head and neck; a powerful beak and talons advertise its hunting prowess. You’re most likely to see this eagle in western North America, soaring on steady wings or diving in pursuit of the jackrabbits and other small mammals that are its main prey. Sometimes seen attacking large mammals, or fighting off coyotes or bears in defense of its prey and young, the Golden Eagle has long inspired both reverence and fear, both in Native Americans and Europeans who came here to settle.


The Golden Eagle is the largest raptor (predatory bird) in North America. The wings are broad like a Red-tailed Hawk, but longer. At distance, the head is relatively small and the tail is long, projecting farther behind than the head sticks out in front. Adult Golden Eagles are dark brown with a golden sheen on the back of the head and neck. For their first several years of life, young birds have neatly defined white patches at the base of the tail and in the wings.

Golden EagleHunting

Usually found alone or in pairs, Golden Eagles typically soar or glide with wings lifted into a slight “V” and the wingtip feathers spread like fingers. They capture prey on or near the ground, locating it by soaring, flying low over the ground, or hunting from a perch. Golden Eagles prey mainly on small to medium-sized mammals, including hares, rabbits, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and marmots. Black-tailed jackrabbits are a key prey species throughout much of their range. These eagles are also capable of taking larger bird and mammal prey, including cranes, swans, deer, and domestic livestock. They have even been observed killing seals, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, coyotes, badgers, and bobcats. In addition to live prey, Golden Eagles often feed on carrion, following crows and other scavengers to a meal. They also catch fish, rob nests, and steal food from other birds.

Family Life

Golden Eagles usually nest on cliffs. They may also build nests in trees, on the ground, or in human-made structures, including windmills, observation towers, nesting platforms, and electrical transmission towers. Constructed near hunting grounds, Golden Eagle nests often command a wide view of their surroundings. Starting at 1 to 3 months before egg-laying, a Golden Eagle pair builds a nest of sticks and vegetation—sometimes also including bones, antlers, and human-made objects such as wire and fence posts. They line the nest with locally available vegetation, such as yucca, grasses, bark, leaves, mosses and lichens, or conifer boughs. They often include aromatic leaves, possibly to keep insect pests at bay. Resident birds continue adding nest material year-round, reusing the same nest for multiple seasons and sometimes alternating between two nests. Nests are huge, averaging some 5-6 feet wide, and 2 feet high, enclosing a bowl about 3 feet by 2 feet deep. Did you know that the largest Golden Eagle nest on record was 20 feet tall, 8.5 feet wide?

Golden EagleWhere to see them

Golden Eagles live in open and semi-open country featuring native vegetation. They avoid developed areas and uninterrupted stretches of forest. They are found primarily in mountains up to 12,000 feet, Canyonlands, rim rock terrain, and riverside cliffs and bluffs. Golden Eagles nest on cliffs and steep escarpments in grassland, chaparral, shrub land, forest, and other vegetated areas. Found mostly in the western half of the U.S., they are rare in eastern states. Here is Arizona, you can usually find them in wild riparian areas like the Salt River Canyons, Oak Creek, etc., and up in our northern canyon areas, like the North and South rims of the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. I have seen them as part of every visit to the North Rim.

Some interesting facts about Golden Eagles

  • Although capable of killing large prey such as cranes, wild ungulates, and domestic livestock, the Golden Eagle subsists primarily on rabbits, hares, ground squirrels, and prairie dogs.
  • Golden Eagles possess astonishing speed and maneuverability for their size. Diving from great heights, they have been clocked at close to 200 miles per hour. In an undulating territorial and courtship display known as “sky-dancing,” a Golden Eagle performs a rapid series of up to 20 steep dives and upward swoops, beating its wings three or four times at the top of each rise. In “pendulum flight,” the eagle dives and rises, then turns over to retrace its path. Single birds and pairs engage in aerial play with objects such as sticks or dead prey, carrying these items high into the sky, then dropping and retrieving them. In addition to attacking prey from the air, Golden Eagles sometimes hunt on the ground, wildly flapping as they run. Mated pairs hunt jackrabbits cooperatively during breeding season; one eagle diverting the animal’s attention while the second makes the kill.
  • The Rough-legged Hawk, the Ferruginous Hawk, and the Golden Eagle are the only American raptors to have legs feathered all the way to the toes.
  • The amount of white in the wings of a young Golden Eagle varies among individuals, and a few lack white in the wings entirely.
  • The Golden Eagle is the most common official national animal in the world. It is the emblem of Albania, Germany, Austria, Mexico, and Kazakhstan.
  • Because their common prey animals (mammals) don’t tend to ingest pesticides, Golden Eagles have escaped the harm sustained by fish-eating or bird-eating raptors from DDT and related chemicals. When these pesticides thinned the eggshells of many birds of prey, Golden Eagles’ shells retained normal thickness. Pesticide concentrations in their blood stayed below levels known to cause reproductive problems.

Golden EagleStatus in the Wild

Golden Eagle populations appear to have been stable over the last several decades, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

About Wild At Heart

Wild At Heart is an all-volunteer organization which is dedicated to the conservation and preservation of Arizona’s native wildlife. At Wild At Heart we: Rescue, rehabilitate, and release birds of prey which have been injured or orphaned. Relocate displaced burrowing owls. Manage species recovery programs. Manage habitat enhancement projects. Provide educational presentations. Each year, Wild At Heart rescues and cares for approximately 400 owls, hawks, and falcons, and some years, as many as 600 raptors have been cared for in the facility. Every single dollar donated goes towards the rescue, rehabilitation, care and release of our amazing Arizona Birds of Prey. Wild At Heart is an all-volunteer non-profit 501(c) 3 organization. Support for Wild At Heart comes from generous members of the community who are concerned about our ever-decreasing wildlife habitats.

Please send your tax-deductible donations to “Wild At Heart” at the following address: Wild At Heart, 31840 N. 45th Street, Cave Creek, Arizona. 85331. For additional information regarding how you can support Wild At Heart please go to:  Visit Website

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Author: William LeRoy

William Leroy has volunteered at Wild At Heart for many years. He has participated in many raptor rescues. His column, "On the Wildside," which he writes on behalf of Wild At Heart, has been published in The Peak for more than a decade.

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