Golden eagles are impressive birds of prey, equally feared and revered for their majestic stature, flight speed, and formidable beak and talons. Often assumed to be closely related to bald eagles, they are actually closer to Buteo hawks, such as the red-tailed hawk. The golden eagle is proudly displayed as the national symbol of Albania, Austria, Germany, Khazakstan, and Mexico. They are very large birds with small heads and dark brown plumage, distinguished by their gleaming golden neck hackles.
An avian of astonishing speed, their flight has been clocked up to 120 miles per hour. They have incredible wingspans to support this flight, an average of 7.2 feet. Let’s explore what these glorious golden eagles eat and how they capture their prey.
What Does the Golden Eagle Eat?
Golden eagles eat a diet that consists primarily of prey such as jackrabbits, hares, and cottontail rabbits, as well as ground squirrels, marmots, and prairie dogs. They are carnivores that also often take advantage of scavenging to find a good meal.
A meta-analysis featuring 35 studies focused on golden eagle’s diets during breeding season found that in western North America, they feed primarily on mammals (84% of prey data), then on birds (15%), reptiles, and fish less frequently (2% and 0.2%), and insects occasionally.
Highly efficient and effective hunters, they are capable of taking down large prey like cranes, swans, deer, and domestic livestock but their primary hunting targets are abundant, medium-sized animals.
While they are primarily carnivores that hunt down moving meals, they take advantage of scavenging feeding on carrion year-round, especially in the winter when other sources may be scarce. Opportunistic and clever, golden eagles often follow crows and other scavengers to a meal. They also sometimes catch fish, take down other birds mid-flight and sometimes rob nests or even steal food from other birds.
Golden Eagle Hunting Grounds
The golden eagle can be found across the Northern hemisphere, including North America, Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. In the US, they reside mostly in the west and prefer the open, rugged country of the plains, mountains, deserts, and plateaus. Golden eagles are especially fond of areas rich with cliffs where they can build their nests, called eyries.
Most acquire a nesting territory after 4 years of age, after they have molted into definitive plumage. Golden eagles mate for years and possibly even for life. Once a pair has established a territory, they generally stick around for the long-haul to defend their area and hatch their young.
They maintain some of the largest known home ranges of any bird species, but there is huge variation depending on habitat and prey availability. A single territory can range from 1 to 77 square miles, but is on average 12 to 18 square miles and may contain up to about 14 nests.
Hunting Habits of the Golden Eagle
Possessing admirable hunting prowess, these raptors have impeccable eyesight and staggering maneuverability for their size. They hunt with an arsenal of techniques such as attacks from high-soaring flight, still-hunting from a perch, as well as low-to-the-ground contour flight.
They deploy up to seven distinctive techniques depending on weather conditions, topography, prey type, and associated escape response all determine the appropriate hunting strategy. On sunny and windy days in open habitats soaring flight attacks may be used. Contour flight is the hunting strategy adopted most frequently, used to surprise prey that may escape off to burrows.
Prey is pin-pointed from a perch most often in open habitats where perches are abundant. They also sometimes hunt from the ground, wildly flapping as they run. Mated pairs hunt cooperatively during breeding season, with one eagle diverting attention while the other swoops in for the kill.
Some reports indicate that golden eagles attack and kill larger prey like antelope by landing intermittently on the animal’s back and riding until the antelope falls from exhaustion and loss of blood.
How Much Do Golden Eagles Eat?
Golden eagles require roughly 8 ounces of food per day, but feast and famine cycles happen, and they have been known to go without food for up to a week. After a period of famine like this they would likely gorge on up to 2 pounds at one sitting.
Hunting generally takes place during the daylight hours. The hours just after dawn and before dusk are peak times to take down prey. The majority of the daylight hours are spent in perched inactivity.
Do Golden Eagles Have Any Predators?
As apex predators, golden eagles do not have to worry about other predators. The only time they are vulnerable to predation is as eggs or chicks, when animals like wolverines, foxes, and bears may steal them from the nest or kill them.
They will occasionally have to battle others of their species to protect their territory. They will use threat displays like undulating flight and aggressive direct flapping with exaggerated downstrokes. Most displays occur not near nests, but rather at the edge of their home ranges. These display flights reduce the need for physical confrontations, which can often be fatal.
Although they don’t have to worry about natural predators, humans have been a danger to golden eagles in the form of hunting, electrocution by fences, and poisonings. In the past, they were commonly shot to protect livestock they were believed to be stealing. They are now protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Act and the Migratory Bird Act, stating that ranchers and farmers cannot scare, harass, or interfere with eagles in any way.
A List of 15 Prey That Golden Eagles Eat
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Martin Mecnarowski/Shutterstock.com
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