Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos

Todd E. Katzner, Michael N. Kochert, Karen Steenhof, Carol L. McIntyre, Erica H. Craig, and Tricia A. Miller
Version: 2.0 — Published September 17, 2020


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The Golden Eagle occupies a wide variety of habitats, the use of which varies across time and space, and is often associated with season, age, breeding status, and specific behaviors. The species occurs at sea level, in the highest mountains, and at all intermediate elevations. Although often observed in association with open grassland, desert, alpine, or shrub-steppe habitats (e.g., western North America, Scotland, central Asia, the Alps and Apennines), the species occurs in many types of forested landscapes (e.g., eastern North America, Sweden, Japan). Perhaps the most consistent habitat association is that it often occurs near areas of high topographic relief (mountains, rolling hills). However, even that association is not absolute, particularly during the non-breeding season, when wintering eagles may be found in more variable terrain wherever perches and prey are available. In northern Kazakhstan, Alaska’s North Slope, and northern Quebec, for example, inhabited areas are remarkably flat. The species only occasionally occurs in marine habitats and it seems to avoid crossing large expanses of open water. It tends to avoid areas with dense human populations, but in California and Switzerland, and potentially elsewhere, some nest close to homes or other buildings.

Habitat in Breeding Range

Nests in a wide variety of habitats from near sea level to 3,630 m (134; G. R. Craig, personal communication). Nesting habitat includes tundra, shrublands, grasslands, woodland-brushlands, and coniferous forests (198, 144). However, the species is also present in farmland and riparian habitats (199, 200) and in forested areas of eastern and western North America is more common than once recognized (144).

Nesting habitat is often associated with either cliffs or trees, although some nests are built on the ground. In northeastern Wyoming, nests frequently are in deciduous trees or, less often, ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) close to water courses (200). Nesting territories in southwestern Montana are at lower elevations and contain more grassland–sagebrush (Artemisia) habitat than do unused areas (201). Nesting density in central Idaho is higher in areas bordered by sagebrush and grass seedings than in areas bordered by agriculture (202). In northeastern Colorado, nests are primarily in grasslands near cliffs and not near cultivated areas (203). In eastern Utah, uses conifer–aspen (Populus) and pinyon–juniper (PinusJuniperus) habitats proportionate to their availability, and uses talus habitat less than expected (204). In northern Utah, nests mainly in grass, shrub, and juniper habitats (205). In Wyoming, nests primarily in grassland, shrubland, or riparian habitats; nests absent or rare in flat desert terrain, farmlands, and dense forests (206). Wyoming nests are also associated with high levels of topographic roughness (207). In central California, nests primarily in open grasslands and oak (Quercus) savanna and to a lesser degree in oak woodland and open shrublands (208, 209). In Arizona, uses desert grasslands and chaparral habitats (210). In eastern Canada, home ranges north of 60°N are dominated by tundra and those south of 55°N are dominated by forest (144). Shrublands or grasslands are the dominant cover types of home ranges at intermediate latitudes. Throughout this eastern Canadian nesting habitat, topography is highly variable, ranging from extremely rugged in Labrador and eastern Quebec, to flat in interior Quebec and into Ontario and Manitoba. In the eastern Hudson Bay region, nests in areas with cuesta relief (asymmetric hills or ridges with gentle slopes and steep escarpments) and rugged topography (211).

In interior and northern Alaska and interior western Canada, nests in a wide variety of habitats. In some places, uses habitat dominated by rugged topography or mountainous terrain, near or above timberline, and along riparian areas (212, 174, 131). In other areas, nests on bluffs and cliffs along rivers below timberline (212) or on sea cliffs (northwestern Alaska; K. Titus, personal communication). In Denali National Park and Preserve, nesting territories are common in mountainous areas between 300 and 1,525 m that are dominated by subalpine and alpine vegetation (213). However, they also may nest in flatter tundra-dominated areas, if there are rock outcrops or other suitable nest sites (EHC, CLM; T. Booms, personal communication). In east-central Yukon, breeding is associated with tundra, river outwash plains, and alpine-subalpine ecotypes (214). In coastal parts of the central Canadian Arctic, occurs in areas with high topographic relief dominated by low-arctic tundra plant species (134). Associated with open habitats in forests west of the Cascade Mountains (215, 159), but recent camera trapping suggests they may be more common than once recognized in forested habitats (B. Woodbridge, personal communication).

In North America, traditionally thought to forage in open habitats such as grasslands or steppe-like vegetation. However, telemetry data have revealed more frequent use of forested landscapes than previously recognized, especially in eastern North America (144). In southwestern Idaho, prefers to forage in shrub habitat, and avoids agriculture, grassland, and burned habitats (176; U.S. Geological Survey, unpublished data). In central California, forages in open grassland habitats (209). In eastern North America, forages in open and semi-open mountainous or hilly terrain (216, 196, 142). In Alaska, along the Kolomak River and Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and in the Atigun and Sagavanirktok River valleys, forages in wet marsh tundra, heath tundra, tussock-heath tundra, and hillside heath tundra valleys (217, 218). In southwestern Alaska, forages on alpine tundra slopes at the edges of subalpine scrub and only rarely in open areas below timberline (174). In northwestern Yukon, may frequent local dumps and roadways, presumably searching for road kills (219).

Telemetry studies (220, 221) and results from aerial and ground surveys (222, 223, 224, 225), suggest that the vast wetlands and upland areas of Alaska’s North Slope provide important pre-breeding hotspots for younger individuals who have not entered the breeding population. Similarly, telemetry studies in eastern North America have illustrated that a large expanse of land south and west of Ungava Bay, Quebec, is used by many non-territorial individuals (TEK, TAM). These areas have not been surveyed as extensively as in Alaska, but likely have similar habitats and an adequate prey base.

Nesting habitat in Eurasia and Africa is as varied as in North America. Although cliffs predominate as nesting sites in many regions, such as the United Kingdom, the Alps, parts of Scandinavia, and Japan (226, TEK), trees are used and in some regions may even predominate as nesting sites (e.g., other parts of Scandinavia and central Asia; TEK, TAM). Across its wide distribution in the Old World, the main features of typical breeding habitats is that they are mostly open (i.e., low density of trees and low shrub cover) and support medium-sized prey species that Golden Eagle can effectively hunt. Typically, breeding habitats occur in rugged landscapes in the uplands that are remote from intensive human activity; e.g., in the British Isles, mostly open moorland or forests with low tree density near open moorland (2). In the European Alps and Himalayas, eagles will hunt marmots just above the treeline, but nests on cliffs and in trees in more forested areas at lower elevations (e.g., 227, 47, 228, 229). In Arabia, nests in Prosopis trees surrounded by rather flat desert or semi-deserts (230). In the Japanese Alps, uses open areas near treeline (231). Nevertheless, also uses other, rather atypical, habitats that are more forested, flatter or even closer to human activity (TEK, MJM, unpublished observations).

Habitat in Nonbreeding Range

In western North America from northwestern Alaska and Canada to central Mexico, primarily winters in humid temperate and dry ecoregion domains (232). These birds are seen most frequently in open habitats with native vegetation and less frequently in urban, agricultural, and forested areas (210, 233, 234, 176). Uses sagebrush communities, riparian areas, grasslands, and rolling oak savanna, often areas with low fragmentation and human population density (235, 233, 236, 237, 238). Generally, absent from harsh, dry areas (< 20 cm annual precipitation) of the Sonoran Desert and central Nevada, although even these areas occasionally support eagles (239). In Idaho and Montana, wintering habitat is made up of landscapes conducive to updraft with low human population density and limited fragmentation (7).

Infrequently observed to winter in forests in western North America. Winter habitat east of the Canadian Rockies skirts the northern edge of grasslands and excludes mixed mesophytic and deciduous forest. However, recent modeling of migrants wintering in the western states indicate that coniferous forest habitats may be used more often than previously thought (240). Carrion in forested areas may influence patterns of winter distribution (241, 240, EHC; T. Craig, personal communication). In the midwestern United States, more frequently seen near reservoirs and wildlife refuges that provide foraging opportunities at winter waterfowl concentrations (153), but telemetry data show that forested regions are also used (M. Martell, TAM, unpublished data). In Idaho, wintering eagles forage primarily in shrubland and avoid grassland and agriculture, with foraging points concentrated in sagebrush-rabbitbrush (ArtemisiaChrysothamnus) habitat and cliff areas (176). In this region, the species is common in grazed areas.

In eastern North America, wintering eagles are strongly associated with forested areas with relatively high topographic relief and low human disturbance (144). These include higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains, Allegheny Plateau, Cumberland Plateau, the Driftless Area of the upper Midwest, and the Ozark Mountains (242, 144). Rarely uses low elevation valleys and, when found in those areas, tends to be observed flying above ridges and slopes. The highest winter densities appear to be in the Ridge and Valley region of the Appalachian Mountains, especially along the Virginia-West Virginia border and into southern Pennsylvania (TEK, TAM). Winter home ranges of 66 eagles tracked in the eastern United States were composed of 79 ± 14% forest (range 6–97%); 15 ± 8% open areas (e.g., grassland, agricultural) (range 0–45%); 1 ± 6% wetlands (range 0–42%); and 4 ± 1% developed lands (range 0–8%) (144). Outside of mountainous areas, eastern Golden Eagles tend to have home ranges with a higher proportion of open areas.

Migration Habitat

In the western United States and Canada, migrating Golden Eagle has been observed hunting during the migration period over wetlands, agricultural areas, and grassy foothills (243). In western Canada, they select areas with strong thermal activity and updrafts (244, 245).

Eagles tracked by telemetry often follow leading lines, including ridges, coastlines, and rivers (TAM). Migration is concentrated in areas with high topographic relief that support updrafts, especially orographic updrafts. Where these features are lacking, Golden Eagle migrates over flat or featureless terrain, where it depends on thermal updrafts to support soaring flight (186, 246, 247, TAM).

Perching and Roosting Habitat

Types and utilization of perch sites vary depending on perch availability, the landscape, and time of year. Common perches are on cliffs, bluffs, power poles, or trees (EHC, T. Craig, personal communication). During the nesting season, both males and females use preferred perches near the nest (248), and the female often roosts on the nest at night (249). Resident eagles usually perch above cliff nests, but below ridge tops (2). An adult Golden Eagle used an unoccupied Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) nest as a winter roost north of Nome, Alaska (D. Johnson, personal communication).

In eastern North America, selection of perching sites varies by season and age (250). Eagles select perch sites on steep slopes that faced south in summer and east during migration. Adults show greater preferences for broadleaf forest in summer and for ridges in autumn.

In Scotland, two male Golden Eagles used 87 and 120 different roost sites over the course of 1 and 2 years, respectively (251). About 70% of roost sites were used only once and generally on low-wind nights. A small proportion were used very frequently and on nights with stronger winds, suggesting they provided better shelter from the wind.

Recommended Citation

Katzner, T. E., M. N. Kochert, K. Steenhof, C. L. McIntyre, E. H. Craig, and T. A. Miller (2020). Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.goleag.02