Tracking devices help monitor Alabama’s eagle population.
One of the best-known birds of prey in North America, the golden eagle is revered by many Native American tribes for its beauty, courage, wisdom and strength. Those same majestic qualities make it a prized sight by Alabama birders as well.
Although the golden eagle can be spotted in Alabama from early fall through early spring, it’s a rare sight in the state.
Joe Watts with the Alabama Birding Trail says the best places to spot eagles in the state is in the Talladega National Forest, although they can occasionally be spotted in other parts of the state as well.
The U.S. Forest Service is currently conducting a banding project in the Talladega National Forest, which is one of 250 birding projects from Maine to Alabama. In Alabama, six birds have been banded in the last three years of the project—five this year. Two more were caught and banded in Jackson County and one in Colbert County this year.
This multi-state project is monitoring an eastern population of golden eagles by attaching tracking devices to the birds. Biologists are obtaining valuable new information about the birds’ overwintering sites in Alabama and identifying migratory pathways to and from their breeding grounds in Canada.
The golden eagle is a larger bird, measuring approximately the same size as a bald eagle. Renee Simmons Morrison, assistant director of Jacksonville State University Field Schools, says golden eagles can weigh between 16 to 20 pounds. Females are larger than males and can have a wingspread of over seven feet.
“They are powerful predators,” Morrison said. “Their talons have a grip of 400 pounds per square inch, about 10 times the grip of a human hand.”
When viewed from a distance, the golden eagle appears to be dark brown or black. It’s named for the gold-colored cape of feathers on the head, neck and upper back of the adult birds. Its bill and talons are black and the cere (the soft membrane that covers the nostrils) and feet are yellow.
Many nature observers mistake immature bald eagles for golden eagles because they lack the white head and tail feathers of adult bald eagles. One way to tell the difference between the two is by looking at the bird’s legs. The golden eagle has feathers along the entire length of the leg to the base of its toes, unlike the bald eagle, which has no feathers on its legs.
“They are powerful predators. Their talons have a grip of 400 pounds per square inch, about 10 times the grip of a human hand.” — Renee Simmons Morrison
Another way bird watchers can tell the difference between a juvenile bald eagle and a golden eagle is by observing the feathers in flight. When soaring, a golden eagle’s primary feathers curve upward on the ends, but the bald eagle’s wing feathers remain flat.
Immature bald eagles also have much more white beneath the wings near the base of the primary and secondary flight feathers than golden eagles. On immature golden eagles, the underside of the fourth through the tenth primary feathers shows a light colored “window” on the basal half of the primaries.
According the Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources, golden eagles usually hunt for their food, unlike the bald eagles, which feed mostly on carrion. Alabama golden eagles prey on species such as rabbits, squirrels, gophers, fawns, wild turkeys, reptiles and small birds. They’ll occasionally eat young domestic livestock as well.
Golden eagles build nests called aeries that can span as much as eight to 10 feet across and three to four feet deep. They usually construct nests in the tops of tall trees or on narrow cliff ledges. They use large sticks with a layer of smaller sticks on top and finished with grass, fur and/or moss for lining. They’ll often build new nests on top of older ones.
Golden eagles begin laying eggs as early as February or March in lower latitudes and as late as June in the Arctic. Nests usually contain two to four eggs that are laid at three- to four-day intervals.
Incubation lasts from 43 to 45 days with the female doing most of the incubating. The eaglets hatch several days apart. The older nestlings are often much larger than the younger nestlings, and may kill their smaller siblings.
The young begin to fly when 72 to 84 days old but depend upon their parents for another three months for food. Then the young will either migrate or move out of the parents’ territory but will spend the winter in the area where they were hatched.
The lifespan of the golden eagle is estimated to be about 30 years.