Birds of the World – Golden Eagle

We may appropriately begin the consideration of this group with the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetus), which is found in North America as far south as Mexico, and also in various parts of Europe and northern Asia, whence it ranges to northern Africa and China„ The male is from thirty to thirty-five inches in length and has an extent of wings of between six and one-half and seven feet, while the female is four or five inches longer and has a spread of wings of between seven and seven and one-half feet. In color the Golden Eagle is a nearly uniform dark brown, with the lanceolate feathers of the hind-neck and the feathers of the tarsus of a paler or more tawny hue, while the tail and quills are black, the former being more or less clouded or irregularly banded with grayish. The young are much paler or even whitish, especially on the under parts and the tail.

From time immemorial this Eagle has been taken as the emblem of all that is noble and courageous, but as so many of our cherished ideals have been shattered in the cold light of truth, so must our estimate in this instance give way before undeniable facts. On this point Major Bendire says : ” Notwithstanding the many sensational stories of the fierceness and prowess of the Golden Eagle, especially in defense of its eyrie, from my own observations I must confess, if not an arrant coward, it certainly is the most indifferent bird, in respect to the care of its eggs and young, I have ever seen.” In spite of this, as Bendire continues, it ” is a clean, trim-looking, handsome bird, keen-sighted, rather shy and wary at all times, even in thinly settled parts of the country, swift of flight, strong and powerful in body, and more than a match for any animal of similar size.” Never very abundant, it has now probably disappeared almost entirely as a nesting species east of the Mississippi River, although an occasional pair may linger in the more mountainous portions of the Adirondacks of New York, the New England States, etc. Beyond the Mississippi it is quite generally distributed, becoming fairly common in the interior Rocky Mountain region. The story is the same on the other side of the Atlantic, for while it once bred in England and Wales, it has gradually retreated farther and farther north, and is now restricted during the nesting season to the Highlands and western islands of Scotland. In other portions of Europe and Asia it is still fairly common. The nesting site is usually selected in some wild and inaccessible place, as a rocky ledge, a perpendicular bluff on the bank of a stream, or, these failing, a large tree. The nest is a bulky affair of large sticks and is often used for many years. One found by Major Bendire near Camp Harney, Oregon, ” situated in a large pine tree close to the trunk and about fifty feet from the ground, was three and one half feet high by three feet wide. It consisted of large sticks, some of them over two inches in diameter, and was sparingly lined with bits of juniper bark, pine needles, and green fir tops, evidently broken off by the birds.” A nest described by a correspondent of Bendire’s must have contained two wagon loads of material and was over seven feet high and quite six feet wide on its upper surface. The eggs are generally two, rarely three, in number, being two and one half to three inches long, of a dirty white ground-color, and usually thickly blotched and spotted with various hues of brown and purplish. The food of the Golden Eagle consists largely of prey captured by itself, though it does not entirely disdain animals killed by another, and under stress of circumstances will even feed on carrion. This latter condition appears to prevail more among the Old World representatives of the species, whereas in America their food consists of small mammals, birds of various kinds, and an occasional young lamb. The following graphic account of the capture of a jack rabbit by a pair of Golden Eagles is given by Mr. W. L. Atkinson : ” The Eagles circled about him at a height of about thirty feet; first one would swoop down on the rabbit and then the other, but the result was always the same, for the rabbit was quick enough to dodge just as the birds struck at him. The chase was nearing the fence, and it seemed if the rabbit could succeed in reaching it, he could, by dodging around among the trees, baffle his pursuers. The Eagles seemed to know this also, for when within fifty yards of the fence, the larger one of the two swooped down at the rabbit, and when he dodged, the Eagle pursued him, flying at a height of about three feet above the ground. The rabbit redoubled his speed and made straight for the fence, the Eagle following and both doing their best. This unequal race was kept up until the fence was reached, the Eagle having gained until she was but two or three feet behind the rabbit. When the rabbit passed through the fence, I expected to see the Eagle give up the pursuit, but she had no intention of doing so, for without slacking her speed she raised herself just enough to clear the fence, and, dropping down behind the rabbit, continued as before. Instead of dodging around among the trees he was so crazed with fear that he ran in a straight line down the orchard. The velocity with which the Eagle flew at this stage of the chase was something wonderful. Fast as the rabbit ran, the ` great black shadow’ behind him drew nearer and nearer, until, poising an instant over its victim, the Eagle pounced upon him. A short struggle, a cry or two from the rabbit, and all was still.”