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Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle photo by the National Park Service.

It is one of the most striking sights in the sky; a golden helmet, a wingspan extending seven feet, and sharp talons that snatch prey with one fell swoop. Combine this with tremendous speed and stealth agility, and you have one of the greatest hunters in flight. The Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetas canadensis) is one of the largest, fastest, and nimblest birds of prey in the world. It has fascinated human society for centuries. In Greek mythology, the Golden Eagle was the companion of Zeus and the bearer of messages and omens. Throughout Medieval Europe, it was the royal eagle and resided next to kings during ceremonial events. Many Native American traditions associate the Golden Eagle with war and warriors, the feathers so treasured they became a reward for bravery in battle and stitched into a warrior’s headdress. Other Native American stories tell how all birds were created the same, but the Creator reserved a special place for Eagles, that of Master of the Sky and messenger of prayers between the Earth and heavens.

In North America, the great Golden Eagle is primarily found around mountains, gliding over cliffs in the vast expanse of the western U.S. A distinct, smaller population resides East of the Mississippi, hiding so well within the dense forests of the Appalachians that most people are unaware of their presence in the region during winter. In recent years, researchers have begun investigating this smaller population, wanting to discover more about their basic ecology, population, migratory pathways, and response to changes in the landscape. Because the eastern population is small, distinct, and facing emerging threats, the AMJV partnership has deemed the Golden Eagle a high priority species in need of conservation attention.

Perhaps not as famous as its cousin the Bald Eagle, the Golden Eagle is a distinct presence in the skies due to its large size and distinctive golden feathers on the crown, nape, and sides of the neck. It is the most common national animal in the world - the emblem for Albania, Austria, Germany, Kazakhstan, and Mexico. The western population of Golden Eagles tend to live in open areas around mountains and hills and build their nests on steep cliffs and escarpments, perfect places to protect their young while getting an unobstructed view of the surrounding area. They use this vantage point to track small mammals like rabbits and squirrels, fish, and small birds. They capture their prey in a variety of ways; from soaring upwards then rapidly descending to knock slow flying birds out of the sky to gliding low to the ground and making a quick strike. And because of their speed - one individual was clocked at nearly 200 miles per hour - they usually catch their prey.

The eastern population of Golden Eagles is much more a forest bird, preferring large tracks of wilderness. Population numbers on these eagles were not well known until recently because of their presence in such out of reach places. This population largely breeds in the tundra of northern Quebec and Ontario, pairing off with the same mate for several breeding seasons. They migrate south over mountain ridges, reaching as far south as the Gulf Coast. The highest concentrations of wintering Golden Eagles are found in the Appalachians, primarily in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. They start to arrive in the region come October and stay until as late as May.

Decline & Status
Golden Eagles were revered by many Native American societies for religious and cultural reasons. As the American landscape transformed, with farmsteads rising from East to West, reverence for eagles turned to fear. With farms came livestock, and for birds of prey, slow moving buffet dinners. Attacks on lambs and deer convinced farmers and ranchers that eagles were a main cause for livestock death and a detriment to their source of income. To fend off such attacks, farmers, ranchers, and others hunted and poisoned eagles. Combined with the rampant use of DDT as a pesticide, both the Golden and Bald Eagle were on the edge of extinction by 1962.

Legislation was crafted and passed to address this situation. Building on the 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act that prohibited selling, killing, or possessing the species, Congress passed the U.S. Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in 1962 that outlawed harming both species of Eagles, their eggs, and nests. Looking back, this piece of legislation along with other conservation initiatives have succeeded astoundingly. The Bald Eagle is one of the greatest success stories of all conservation. The Golden Eagle rebounded as well, sustaining a stable population throughout North America. Researchers believe a population of several hundred now resides in the eastern forests of the U.S. and Canada.

Though recovering, challenges persist and new changes on the landscape are leading to emerging threats. It is estimated that 70 percent of recorded Golden Eagle deaths are due to human impact, mainly from collisions with vehicles and other structures. Urbanization and changes in wildfire regimes are altering habitat conditions. New forms of energy such as shale gas and wind turbines could impact migration routes while reducing available wintering habitat spots. There is a great need to uncover how many eagles live in the Appalachian forests, the migratory pathways they use, and where and how to best focus conservation activities.

Our Work
The AMJV is part of the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group, a blend of biologists, wildlife and resource managers, and volunteers from the United States and Canada. This group is working together to identify the gaps in knowledge mentioned above, increase public and government awareness, develop science-based conservation and management actions, and coordinate those actions among managers and biologists working throughout the region. The group is nationally recognized for a camera-trapping project that is harvesting a wealth of knowledge about Golden Eagles and other wildlife in the Appalachians. Over 150 motion sensitive camera sites in the Central Appalachians are recording Golden Eagle visits. Bait at these sites lure eagles and other predators, providing a glimpse into their activity and giving researchers an idea of how many eagles are in a given area. Currently 200 volunteers help to monitor and maintain these sites.

In addition, partners within the Working Group are using cutting-edge GPS transmitters to track the movements of individual birds throughout the year. Golden Eagles are trapped using rocket nets at sites baited with road-killed deer. They are weighed, banded, and outfitted with a tracking unit. The devices collect data on the location of individual birds during the winter and summer months as well as migration. Researchers are using the movement data to model the flight characteristics and patterns of individual birds, determine their focal wintering and migrating areas in the Appalachians, and evaluate potential impacts of energy development. Overall, a wealth of new science information is helping inform conservation actions to preserve the great Golden Eagle in the Eastern U.S. and Canada.