The golden eagle is a very large bird of prey with a wingspan of more than 2 metres. Almost all breeding golden eagles in Britain are in Scotland, where there are open, treeless areas down to sea level. In recent years, the Forestry Commission has helped to re-establish the golden eagle in Ireland.
Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
The golden eagle prefers open, treeless areas to lowland woods. Because of the climate in western Scotland, these upland conditions are present down to sea level and golden eagles are found there at lower altitudes than in central Scotland. Golden eagles are sensitive to human disturbance and build their nests in remote, inaccessible places. Their territories range in size from 5 - 150 km2. In some areas of Scotland, the breeding density is among the highest in the world and territories are very small. Golden eagles in Scotland do not migrate and will remain in their breeding territories throughout the year. Young and non-breeding birds avoid occupied territories in their search for suitable breeding areas.
Golden eagles take several years to reach maturity and normally do not start breeding until they are 4 - 5 years old. The breeding season continues almost all year. The females starts to lay 1 - 3 eggs in early to mid April and incubates them for about 43 days.
When they are hatched, the young spend 9 - 11 weeks in the nest before making their first flight. More often than not, only one chick will survive to leave the nest. It is still not fully understood whether this is because of a lack of food or competition between the young birds.
Young birds will remain in their parents’ territory into the early winter months, begging for food for as long as the adult will continue to feed them. In birds of prey, up to 60 - 70% of all young that leave the nests will not survive their first winter. This figure is probably significantly lower for large raptors such as golden eagles, but a young eagle faces a life or death struggle through its first winter. After surviving that first year, a young eagle may well then live for more than 20 years.
Golden eagles will take any prey that is available, from small birds to snakes. In Scotland, they prefer hares and grouse, and sometimes rabbits. In coastal areas, they prefer fulmars to gulls.
Golden eagles have no natural predators. The main threat is from human activity, with many golden eagles that wander over grouse moors in the east and south of Scotland killed by poison and shooting. Poor habitat quality means that even if an adult pair can survive they will rarely breed successfully.
Adult golden eagles are famous for the light golden brown colouring on their head, neck and shoulders. Their bodies are mostly a medium brown colour with lighter mottling. Golden eagles have a smaller head and longer tail than white-tailed eagles, and these are distinctive flight characteristics. The plumage of young golden eagles is a dark chocolate brown with very conspicuous white markings on the wings and upper parts of the tail. It may take 6 years for a young bird to gain full adult plumage. Golden eagles are rarely heard and adults generally only call when agitated. Hungry young birds make a loud 'yip-yip' sound that can be heard from some distance.
How we manage our woods
In the past, when too many trees were planted in a golden eagle's territory, an adult pair's breeding success was much reduced. Today, when we clear woods of trees, or plant new areas with trees, we are sensitive to the needs of golden eagles for open areas to hunt for prey. We also manage our forestry operations to include exclusion zones around golden eagle nests. We are working closely with a range of partners, including Scottish Natural Heritage and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to ensure the survival of the golden eagle.