SPECIES

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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Adult

Very large with long wings. All dark brown, with slightly paler flight feathers. Golden nape can be seen from some angles.

Immature

Very large with long wings. All dark brown, with white patches at the base of the primaries in the wing, and at the base of the tail. Golden nape can be seen from some angles.

Adult

Very large with strongly hooked bill. All dark brown, with contrasting golden-brown nape.

Immature

Very large with strongly hooked bill. All dark brown, with contrasting golden-brown nape. Immatures have a white base to the tail, visible from some angles.

Immature (with Bald Eagle)

Very large with long wings. All dark brown, with white patches at the base of the primaries in the wing, and at the base of the tail. Golden nape can be seen from some angles. (Golden Eagle at right; Bald Eagle at left.)

Adult

Constructs large stick nests, usually in large trees.

Habitat

Occurs in a wide variety of habitats, usually in fairly open areas and/or near large cliffs.

Juvenile Golden Eagle (below) and Juvenile Bald Eagle (above).
Immature Golden Eagle (left) and immature Bald Eagle (right).
Immature Golden Eagle (left) with Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) (right).
Immature Golden Eagle (left) with Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) (right).
Immature Golden Eagle (left) with Steppe Eagle (right) (Aquila nipalensis).
Immature Golden Eagle (above) with Steppe Eagle (below) (Aquila nipalensis).
Immature Golden Eagle with Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus).
Downy nestling.
Downy nestlings.
Fresh fall juvenile

Note uniform-age primaries and secondaries, white-based tail with clear-cut black tip.

Juvenile on spring migration

This bird is less than a year old, returning north to Alaska in spring. Note uniform-age primaries and secondaries, white-based tail with clear-cut black tip.

Juvenile

Note uniformly dark upperwing coverts, lacking the tawny bar shown by older age classes.

Juvenile head detail
Juvenile in winter

Note uniform age primaries and secondaries. This individual has reduced white in the wing, which some juveniles lack altogether.

Second-year in fall migration

Very similar to juvenile, but note replaced inner primaries and central tail feathers. Unless tail is spread, the replaced tail feathers can be hard to see.

Second-year (or TY in banding terminology) in spring

Note overall appearance similar to juvenile, but has replaced 7 inner primaries and a few secondaries. Determining molt in the tail is typically difficult in the field, especially when the tail is folded, but usually second-years have replaced a few tail feathers, including the central ones.

Second-year in spring (TY in banding terminology)

Note replaced central and outer tail feathers, a few secondaries, and P1-7. In contrast to many northern migratory individuals, birds that breed farther south are resident, and can have more extensive prebasic molts, especially among the primaries and secondaries. Tail molt seems more consistent but more study is needed.

Second-year in winter

Note the extreme similarity to juvenile plumage on this individual, but P1-4 have been replaced while P5-10 are retained juvenile as well as all visible secondaries. Most birds in North America replace at least a few secondaries in the second prebasic molt.

Second-year in winter

Typical tail pattern with inner and outer tail feathers replaced, and many juvenile secondaries retained.

Second-year on fall migration

Note nearly completely dark underwing with juvenile-like tail. Birds like this can be difficult to age without assessing the molt pattern carefully. Note inner four primaries replaced with adult-like feathers, but fully retained juvenile wing feathers others. Close examination of the tail would likely show replaced inner and outer tail feathers but that is difficult to see when the tail is folded.

Second-year in winter

Note retained juvenile P7-10, and most of the secondaries; retained S3-4 are plain brownish with white bases, and are notably longer than the newly replaced adult-like secondaries adjacent. Also note newly replaced outer tail feathers.

Third-year on spring migration

Note retained juvenile outer primaries and a few secondaries.

Third-year on fall migration

Note retained juvenile outer primaries as well as a few secondaries.

Third-year in winter

Note retained juvenile outer primary and a few inner secondaries.

Third-year in early winter

This individual is visually more like a second-year, but it has molted its flight feathers twice. It has retained juvenile P8-10, S4 and S7-10. Also note mostly sub-adult tail feathers, which would be wrong for a second-year.

Third-year in spring

On this darker-winged individual, note retained juvenile P-9-10, a few secondaries, and two ages of subadult tail feathers.

Third-year in winter

Resident populations, such as those in California, can have more extensive prebasic molts, especially in the wings. Note retained juvenile outer primary and a few secondaries. Importantly, this bird has two ages of subadult tail feathers in the typical pattern of a third-year.

Fourth-year on spring migration

Note retained juvenile secondary that is longer, paler brown and faded. Also note mostly white tail base due to retained subadult tail feathers.

Fourth-year in winter

Note mostly adult flight feathers with a mix of retained subadult white-based secondaries and tail feathers.

Fourth-year in winter

Note adult-like appearance with just a hint of white in subadult tail feathers.

Fourth-year in winter

Same bird as ML261846361. In flight note retailed subadult tail feathers.

Definitive Basic Plumage.

Adults (> 5 years old) are predominantly dark brown but have faint gray bars on the tail and golden, sometimes faded, feathers on the rear of the crown, the nape, and the sides of the neck.

Definitive Basic Plumage.

All flight feathers are marbled with dark tips and usually lack white areas at the bases of the secondaries. The feather tips form a dark band on the trailing edge of the wings. The rectrices are marbled with a wide, black terminal band and may have a uniform gray base or dark bars on dark gray or less often dark bars on light gray or white.

Definitive Basic Plumage.

The entire plumage is dark brown except the area encompassing the rear crown, postocular region, nape (extending forward to the rear border of the auriculars), and the sides of the lower neck, which are golden brown.

Definitive Basic Plumage in winter.

Remiges show 2–4 sets of basic feathers that turn over in Staffelmauser (stepwise) patterns. Replacement sets of primaries are identified by the presence of a worn feather immediately distal to a fresh proximal feather. Secondaries show mixed generations of feathers in various sequences.

Definitive Basic Plumage.

Upperwing coverts, especially the greater, lesser and median coverts, as well as the innermost 1 or 2 greater coverts, often are paler and more buffy, and they form a diagonal bar on the wing that is visible in flight and on perched birds.

Image from camera trap capture showing epaulets.
Image from camera trap capture showing epaulets.
Nestling molting into Juvenile Plumage.
Nestling molting into Juvenile Plumage.
Nestlings molting into Juvenile Plumage.
One-year old initiating second prebasic molt

Note full juvenile plumage on this rather dark-winged individual, apart from a few inner primaries growing in at the start of the second prebasic molt.

One-year old initiating second prebasic molt

Note the beginning of second prebasic molt in the inner primaries.

Adult initiating definitive prebasic molt with at the inner primaries.
Head detail of adult.

The bill and cere of adults are tricolored, with the cere yellow, and the bill black at the tip and lightening to grayish at the base. The eyes of adults vary from dark brown, hazel, or light yellow, to flecked gold and brown.

Adult Golden Eagle (Spain)
Golden Eagle (Oman).

Presumably subspecies homeyeri. Similar to A. c. chrysaetos, but smaller, with darker body plumage and a browner, less golden, nape.

Juvenile Golden Eagle (Western Sahara).

Presumably subspecies homeyeri.

Golden Eagle (Bulgaria).

Presumably subspecies chrysaetos. Body plumage medium brown with a golden nape; medium in size.

Golden Eagle (Sweden).

Presumably subspecies chrysaetos.

Golden Eagle (Switzerland).

Presumably subspecies chrysaetos.

Adult Golden Eagle (China).

Presumably subspecies daphanea.

Juvenile Golden Eagle (China).

Presumably subspecies daphanea.

Golden Eagle (Japan).

Presumably subspecies japonica. Similar to A. c. kamtschatica, but markedly smaller, and body plumage darker (toward fuscous) with a bright rufous nape.

Golden Eagle (Japan).

Presumably subspecies japonica.

Golden Eagle (Russia).

Presumably subspecies kamtschatica. Similar to A. c. daphanea, but, on average, slightly smaller, and the nape is rufous brown instead of golden brown.

Golden Eagle (Mongolia).

Presumably subspecies kamtschatica.

Golden Eagle (Canada).

Presumably subspecies canadensis. Similar in appearance to A. c. japonica, but somewhat paler overall and larger.

Golden Eagle (United States).

Presumably subspecies canadensis.

Golden Eagle (United States).

Presumably subspecies canadensis.

Juvenile soaring over typical oak grassland habitat in California
Nesting habitat in Utah, United States.

Nest is in the center of the photo.

Typical winter habitat in central California

In California in winter, favors open areas, especially rangelands with surrounding foothills and mountains. At this particular site, ground-squirrels draw large concentrations of eagles and buteos in winter.

Juvenile hunting from prominent perch

Uses many types of prominent perches for hunting, including trees, fences, and power poles.

A variety of prey items in a nest.

Visible are remains of a snake, several rabbits, possible marmot.

A variety of prey items in a nest.
Golden Eagle with "mountain goat" kid.
Two Golden Eagles preparing to attack chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra).
Golden Eagle feeding on chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) carcass.
Golden Eagle with Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) prey.
Golden Eagle with Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons) prey.
Golden Eagle pursuing Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis).
Juvenile in a stoop.
Two Golden Eagles interacting.
Golden Eagle being attached by Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).
Golden Eagle being attached by Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).
Two Golden Eagles talon-grappling on the ground.
Two Golden Eagles talon-grappling.
Golden Eagles copulating.
Golden Eagles copulating.
Nest on windmill.
Nest on a nesting platform.
Nest site (Hentiy, Mongolia)
Nest site (Çanakkale, Turkey).
Nest site (Utah, United States).
Nest site (Utah, United States).
Nest site (Montana, United States).
Nest site (Montana, United States).
Nest site (Montana, United States).
Nest site (California, United States).
Nest site (Quebec, Canada).
Nest site (Quebec, Canada).
Nest site (Northwest Territories, Canada).
Nest (Hentiy, Mongolia)
Nest (Alaska, United States)
Nest (Montana, United States)
Nest (Oregon, United States)
Nest (California, United States)
Adult with nestling at nest.
Adult with nestling at nest.

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