Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos
Version: 2.0 — Published September 17, 2020
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The Golden Eagle has a Holarctic distribution that spans latitudes from approximately 20° to 70°N, with scattered populations farther south (128, 129, 2). It occurs throughout North America and northern Eurasia, and is patchily distributed in North Africa. In North America, the breeding distribution spans the northern two-thirds of the continent, as well as the western parts south to Mexico. Wintering grounds include southern Canada, the contiguous 48 states of the United States, northern and central Mexico, and occasionally Alaska. In Eurasia, the northern extent of that range stretches from northern Europe (northern British Isles and Scandinavia) to the Kola Peninsula and on to eastern Siberia and Kamchatka Peninsula. Breeding also occurs in southern Europe from the Iberian Peninsula to Turkey, in the Caucasus and much of central Asia south to Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Korea, and Japan. They also nest on large islands in the Mediterranean and throughout North Africa, including Western Sahara, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Tunisia, Niger, and Egypt. The only known Golden Eagle population from tropical (sub-Saharan) Africa is in the Bale Mountains in southern Ethiopia.
Breeding Range in the Americas
Extends across Canada and through much of western North America (west of the 100th meridian) from Alaska south to central Mexico. Formerly nested in the northeastern United States, now extirpated. Today the species nests in eastern Canada and winter in the Appalachians and surrounding regions. There are sporadic and confirmed reports of breeding activity in the southeastern United States that likely stem from past introductions of exotic, non-migratory individuals from western North America (see Conservation and Management: Introductions in the Southern Appalachians).
Alaska and Canada
Includes most of Alaska, but the density of breeding territories varies greatly across this vast area (130, 131, 132; B. Ritchie, unpublished data). Densities of breeding territories are probably highest in the mountainous regions of interior and northern Alaska and lowest in coastal areas including, but not limited to, the eastern Aleutians (west to Unalaska; 133), Kodiak Island (D. Zwiefelhofer, personal communication), and southeastern Alaska (S. B. Lewis, personal communication).
In western Canada the breeding range extends from the southern coast of the Beaufort Sea (east to Coronation Gulf; 134) south to the United States border. Generally does not nest in coastal portions of British Columbia (except southeastern Vancouver Island and the Fraser Lowlands; 135) or much of Saskatchewan (except Lake Athabasca, Foster Lakes, Lower Churchill River, and South Saskatchewan River regions; 136). Breeding records are scattered for Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Yukon (137; A. Franke, personal communication), northeastern British Columbia, and all but southern portions of eastern Alberta. However, these areas are poorly surveyed, and high densities of nesting territories have been reported in portions of the Yukon (137) and Northwest Territories (134). Thus, there may be more individuals nesting and summering in western Canada than indicated by historical and contemporary surveys (CLM).
In eastern Canada, nests in eastern Manitoba near Hudson Bay. These birds nest in trees and some migrate to the southeastern United States (138; Alabama Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources, Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources, Bernheim Arboretum and Forest Preserve, unpublished data). Nests in northwestern Ontario south of Hudson Bay (139), in northern Quebec north of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on the Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec, and throughout Labrador, (140, 141, 142, 143, 144). No nesting has been documented in south-central and southwestern Quebec (143, 144) or insular Newfoundland (143). Previously bred in southwestern Ontario (145, 146), but there is no recent evidence of nesting (147). May nest in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (148, 149; K. D. De Smet, personal communication).
Conterminous United States
West of the 100th meridian, nests from the Canadian border south, through Washington, Idaho, and Montana to the Mexican border and east to southwestern North Dakota (150, 151), western South Dakota (152), the panhandle of western Nebraska (153, 154), the western two-thirds of Colorado (155), the western panhandle of Oklahoma (156), the panhandle and Trans-Pecos of Texas (157), eastern New Mexico (158). During the nesting season, they are sometimes recorded west of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon, the immediate coast and flat portions of Central Valley of California, the Salton Sea, the lower Colorado River, deserts of southeastern California and southwestern Arizona, agricultural portions of eastern Washington, and mountains of northern Idaho (159, 160, 161, 162, 163, 164, 165). There is patchy evidence of nesting in western Kansas (166), and suspected nesting in central South Dakota west of the Missouri River (152). There are a few nesting territories in western Nebraska (154).
In the eastern United States, historically nested in the northeastern United States (5). Recent anecdotal evidence suggests prospecting at historical nest sites in Maine, but no evidence of nesting. See Historical Changes to Distribution for more details.
Nests in northern Baja California and the highlands of central Mexico, including northeastern Sonora (167), and from Chihuahua and Coahuila south to San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato, and Queretaro (168, 169). Recent evidence shows that nesting occurs in Oaxaca and Veracruz (170) and throughout both Baja California and the northern parts of Baja California Sur (4). A recent report contains 183 breeding and non-breeding records that cover nearly the full extent of Mexico (171).
Wintering Range in the Americas
Most individuals from northern latitudes and higher elevations migrate in winter. However, some will remain year-round at > 60°N latitude when sufficient prey is available (172). Winter behavior of purported residents at lower latitudes is poorly known but becoming clearer as telemetry data are collected from tagged birds.
Rare in winter throughout most of northern and interior Alaska, northern and interior Yukon, and the Mackenzie Mountains of the Northwest Territories (173, 174, EHC, CLM). An early report suggests that Golden Eagle was resident but not common on the Seward Peninsula, in western Alaska (175). The species is rarely recorded on Christmas Bird Counts in Alaska. Rare in winter in southwestern, south-coastal, and southeastern Alaska (130). These individuals may be year-round residents, or they may be migrants from interior or northern Alaska (CLM). There have been at least 20 records in southern Yukon during December and January, mostly in winters when snowshoe hare was abundant (137).
Farther south, residents appear to stay in or around their territory year-round, but their home ranges are larger during the non-breeding season than during the nesting season (165, 176). Some individuals have been tracked moving long distances from their nesting grounds during late summer. For example, in 3 consecutive years, a telemetered adult male with a nesting territory in southwestern Idaho spent late summers and early autumns 670–790 km away in central Wyoming or south-central Montana. On these trips, he spent 12 to 76 days in different areas each year, before flying back to his territory. In one of those years, he briefly returned to his territory and then spent the fall and winter 40–80 km to the north, before returning to his nesting territory the following spring. (U.S. Geological Survey [USGS] and M Stuber, unpublished data) Similarly, an adult male telemetered in north-central Oregon, spent July–October in each of 3 years 640 km to the north, in British Columbia (S. McKinney, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, unpublished data). Some subadults from California, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona make late summer or early winter northbound movements similar to migration (103, EHC; D. Driscoll and R. Murphy, personal communication; M. Fuller, T. Craig and USGS, unpublished data). Finally, several Golden Eagles telemetered as nestlings in northern Arizona migrated each year northward to Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Canada and Alaska in the summer of their second through fifth years (1–4 years old), usually returning by late October (D. Driscoll, personal communication).
During winter, occurs throughout most of western North America but are generally absent from most northern latitudes. The latitudinal center of winter abundance in the western United States appears to have shifted northward during the period 1975–2011 (177). There are regular reports from southernmost British Columbia, southern Alberta, and southern Saskatchewan, south throughout the breeding range in the western United States and Mexico. Also winters in areas of lower elevations not occupied during the nesting season. These include the Pacific Coast of California, northwestern parts of the Mexican states of Baja California, Sonora, and Hildago (168, 132, 167). Regularly observed east to central Dakotas, central Kansas, western Oklahoma, and western Texas (178).
Winters in greater numbers than previously realized throughout eastern North America. In eastern Canada, Golden Eagle winters as far north as the Gaspé Peninsula (179) and central Ontario (G. McMillan, personal communication). In winter, it occurs throughout the Appalachians, from Maine to Alabama (5, 180, 144, TEK, TAM) and south to the Gulf Coast and Florida Panhandle (181, 182, 183, 184, 185, 186, 132, 187, 188, 189, 5, 144; Maine Division of Fish and Wildlife, unpublished data). It also regularly occurs in the coastal plain, especially in coastal marshes and even the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey (TAM, M. Lanzone, unpublished data). There are rare reports of individuals as far south as the Florida Keys (184, 132).
There is occasional evidence (e.g., fledgling eagles observed, nests observed) of breeding in the southern Appalachians in Georgia (1991–2000), Tennessee (1993, 1996, 2010, 2012), and possibly Virginia (2016) (TAM, TEK). This breeding is likely the result of introductions of Golden Eagles from western states into the southeastern United States during the period 1991–2006 (see Conservation and Management: Introductions in Southern Appalachians). These birds should be considered exotics, as there is no historical evidence that the Golden Eagle nested naturally in the southern Appalachians (190).
Considered accidental in Belgium, Netherlands, Cyprus, Kuwait, and Canary Islands. A male was seen on Kauai in Hawaii for 17 years until its death; no mate or other eagles were seen during this time (191, 192).
Historical Changes to the Distribution
Historically, the Golden Eagle nested throughout much of western North America, including the Great Plains (73) and Mexico (171). Although many of those areas are still used for nesting today, the species has been locally extirpated from several areas. The species formerly nested in eastern Nebraska, southeastern South Dakota, Wisconsin, and the Central Valley of California (193, 153). Breeding records are lacking for Iowa, Minnesota, and Indiana (153).
In eastern North America, historical nesting has been confirmed in Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts (194, 5, 143). The last reported nesting in New Hampshire was in 1961 and in New York was in 1972 (194). In Maine, two pairs nested in 1983, and one pair nested until 1996. The pair in Maine occupied a nesting territory in 1997, and the last territorial adult was documented in 1999 (194, 143), but even those eagles had not successfully fledged young since 1984 (195, 5). Causes for this population decline are thought to be due to degradation of suitable habitat and reproductive failure from DDT poisoning (196, 195, 5; see Conservation and Management: Effects of Human Activity). Recent data suggest that some telemetered eagles have repeatedly visited historical territories in Maine (E. Mojica and B. Watts, personal communication). There is little evidence of nesting in the central and southern Appalachians from the past 200 years (190), except as a result of exotic introductions in the 1980s and 1990s.
Most breeding records for the Maritime Provinces of Canada are unsubstantiated (148, 5). The species was a casual visitor to Maritime Provinces in late 1980s, with a large increase in sightings between the late 1960s and 1980s. These increases may be due to increased awareness of the presence of the Golden Eagle in eastern North America.
Although historical changes have certainly occurred across Eurasia and Africa, published information on these changes in distribution are limited. The species is present in all countries within its historical distribution (197). It had been extirpated from many parts of the British Isles (Ireland, England, Wales) and is slowly being reintroduced or recovering in these areas.