The Golden Eagle is Britain's largest bird of prey, and is in fact one of the best-known birds of prey in the Northern Hemisphere. Furthermore, it is also the most widely distributed of all eagle species.

Sadly, it has long been persecuted in the mistaken belief that it kills lambs and game birds. Inhabiting only the remotest regions of the north of England and most of Scotland and numbering less than 500 pairs, the golden eagle is not the easiest of British birds to find and see. Encountering this majestic bird is therefore very much a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Where to find the Golden eagle

For those of you who are prepared to make the effort, the right places include the Scottish Isles of Skye, Mull and Islay, as well as any remote, undisturbed highland glens such as those found amongst the Cairngorms. In mainland England, sightings of the golden eagle are going to be restricted to the vicinity of Haweswater in the lake district.

The golden eagle once bred throughout  Great Britain, but only one pair breeds outside of Scotland. In the 19th century, persecution from farmers, gamekeepers and egg collectors were responsible for many eagle deaths.

Pesticides such as DDT and dieldrin caused the breeding success of the eagle to suffer. Although such pesticides have now been banned, today poisoning is still perhaps the biggest threat to the golden eagle.
Habitat destruction from ever increasing forestry plantations is also reducing and fragmenting the open areas which the golden eagle need to hunt over.

The best time to spot a golden eagle are during the spring and summer when the sun-baked ground produced warm air currents on which the bird can soar as it hunts for food to feed its  young.

Despite is great size, the golden eagle can easily be mistaken for a common buzzard. However, a golden eagle is far darker, while its larger more parallel-sided wings give the impression of it having  shorter tail. When soaring, the golden eagle holds it wings in  a characteristic V-shaped , and only flattens them when gliding.

What does a golden eagle eat?

The golden eagle preys mainly on small mammals, especially the mountain hare. Larger mammals such as the deer are usually eaten as carrion. Other prey can include young foxes, stoat and mink, but on rare occasions it may try its hand at something bigger!

It will kill some game birds – such as red grouse and ptarmigan, but smaller passerines (songbirds) are also taken and snakes and lizards may also be caught.

Most prey is caught on the ground, but some birds may be struck in flight. The golden eagle hunts by quartering along a slope or ridge, frightening its prey into the open. Its keen eyesight enables it to see small prey from some distance away.

After a successful hunt, a golden eagle will tear up its prey into manageable pieces. If there are chicks to be fed, the golden eagle will carry part of its kill back to the nest - known as an eyrie.

Golden eagle breeding

Golden eagles usually build their eyries on rocky ledges, cliffs and in trees. In a few places, golden eagles may have used the same rocky ledge for hundreds of years. Nests in trees are often added to each year and can become huge. Within a territory a pair may have several different nests and use different ones in successive years.

The mating display between male and female golden eagles involves an undulating flight in which the male will repeatably dive down and soar up again. Mating takes place on the ground and the first egg is usually laid in mid to late March.

Incubation begins before the second egg is laid which results in the first chick hatching out three or four days before the second one. As a result, the second chick rarely survives as it usually starves or is killed by its older sibling.

Golden Eagle facts

1. A Golden eagles nest can be 3.5 metres high and 1.5 metres in diameter.

2. When two Golden eagle hatch, the older of the two will often kill the younger one soon after it has hatched.

3. Golden eagles probably live for 15-20 years in the wild  although captive birds have been known to live for 40-45 years.

4. In the forested areas of North America, a golden eagles home can cover 520 sq km.

5. Golden eagles swoop down on their prey at speeds of up to 150 km/hour

6. Only kings were once allowed to hunt with golden eagles - hence the birds royal association.

7. Some Golden Eagles eat tortoises. They fly with the tortoise held in their talons and then drop the tortoise on a rock outcrop to break the shell open. 

8. Golden Eagles are more closely related to hawks, like the Red-tailed Hawk, than to Bald Eagles. Bald Eagles are more closely related to kites. 

9. The Golden rarely makes calls, although a thin whistle is occasionally produced in flight.

10. The golden eagle is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List. It is protected in the UK by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 and listed as a UK Species of Conservation Importance. Sadly, the Golden Eagle is now extinct in Ireland. It is listed under Annex I of the EC Birds Directive and is classified as a Species of European Conservation Concern (SPEC 3- rare).

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