Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

Also known as: Black eagle, erne, mountain eagle
French: Aigle royal
GenusAquila (1)
SizeLength: 80 - 93 cm (2)
Wingspan: 190 - 225 cm (2)
Top facts

The golden eagle is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List  (1). Protected in the UK by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 and listed as a UK Species of Conservation Importance. Extinct in Ireland. Listed under Annex I of the EC Birds Directive and classified as a Species of European Conservation Concern (SPEC 3- rare) (3).

Although the majestic golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is not Britain’s largest raptor (the white-tailed eagle exceeds it in size) nor is it the rarest, it has a certain powerful resonance in the British psyche as an enduring symbol of strength and wildness (4) (5). This huge bird of prey can be identified by its very long wings and long tail. When gliding or soaring it typically holds its wings in a shallow ‘V’ (2). The plumage is dark brown rather than golden and the massive talons are bright yellow. The feathers of the head and nape of the neck are typically light yellowish or reddish-brown, giving the appearance of a ‘shawl’. Males and females are similar in appearance, but juveniles can be distinguished by the presence of white patches on the undersides of the wings and on both surfaces of the tail (2). This raptor rarely makes sound, although a thin whistle is occasionally produced in flight (2).

The golden eagle has probably never been particularly common in Britain, as pairs require enormous territories (5). The British population is thought to number around 400 pairs at present (3). Most of these pairs are found in the Scottish Highlands, although more recently a few birds have returned to the Lake District, Cumbria (6). The species is extinct in Ireland, following persecution (3). The golden eagle's world range spreads through the Palaearctic region including mountainous parts of Europe as far south as northern Africa and south-east Asia. It also occurs in North America (3).

Breeds in mountainous areas and upland forests (2). In the UK the golden eagle occurs mainly in uplands, but a handful of pairs are found in coastal habitats (3).

Golden eagles hunt in a range of ways; they may soar and search for prey from on high, or sit in a tree on the look-out. They have also been seen flying low and then ambushing their prey. Food items taken include a range of small mammals including hares, rabbits, young foxes and rodents, as well as gamebirds and carrion (2).

Pairs mate for life, and the huge nest (or ‘eyrie’) built in a tree or on a cliff-ledge will be used year after year providing it is not disturbed (2). Furthermore, these nests may be used by successive generations (6). Display flights occur during courtship in which the pair performs plunging and looping flights (6). Two eggs are laid following mating, and these are incubated for up to 45 days. The chicks fledge after 65 to 70 days. Golden eagles may live for as long as 32 years (6).

Widespread persecution of the golden eagle throughout the 18th and 19th centuries led to the UK population reaching a low of just 80 breeding pairs by 1870 (3). Poisoning and egg collecting were the main threats, unfortunately despite legal protection, isolated incidences of both still occur to today (6). Commercial tree-planting is also thought to be a threat due to the disruption of habitat, and this appears to have been the factor leading to the loss of a number of breeding pairs in Argyll and Kintyre in the early 1990s (3). Habitat destruction and persecution are factors involved in the continuing decline of the golden eagle in some parts of Europe (3).

Persecution of this species began to decline after 1870. Coupled with the introduction of the Protection of Wild Birds Act 1954, this helped the British population of the golden eagle to start its recovery. This species is now protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981. As a result of the listing of this bird under Annex I of the EC Birds Directive, eight sites in Scotland have been designated as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) in order to protect the golden eagle (3). The species also occurs in three reserves owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and so this magnificent raptor benefits from suitable management and protection at a number of sites (6).

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  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
  2. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterstrom, D. & Grant, P.J. (1999) Collins bird guide. Harper Collins Publishers Ltd., London.
  3. JNCC SPA Suite for golden eagle (October 2003):
  4. Greenoak, F. (1979) All the birds of the air: the names, lore and literature of British birds. Book Club Associates, London.
  5. Buczaki, S. (2002) Fauna Britannica. Hamlyn, London.
  6. RSPB- Golden eagle (October 2003):