Golden Eagles are more closely related to Red-tailed Hawks than to Bald Eagles.
Extirpated as a breeder in the 1970s due mainly to human persecution, loss of habitat and chemical contamination. Currently known only as a few scattered individuals during breeding season and in migration, and one consistently occupied winter territory.
This species was extirpated from New York's breeding bird fauna in the 1970s. Infrequent breeding attempts occurred at 6 different sites in the Adirondacks between 1951-1979 with the last successful nest fledging young in 1972 (Spofford 1971b; New York State Department of Environmental Conservation files). No breeding activity has been detected in the Adirondacks since 1979 despite extensive annual aerial surveys in the early 1980s, as well as BBA atlassing in the mid 1980s, and again in the early 2000s, using ground based surveyors (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation files). This parallels the extirpation of breeding Golden Eagles in Maine where the last of 2 former nesting sites were abandoned in 2001, but successful nesting had not occurred since the early 1980s (Kochert et al. 2002). The wintering site in Dutchess County has been consistently occupied since the early 1970s (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation files).
This species was never believed to be common in the eastern U.S., although New York was formerly considered to be its eastern stronghold. Since this large raptor is primarily a bird of open country, the northern Appalachian population is likely a glacial remnant. According to Eaton (1910), it was an uncommon historical breeder in colonial times in the Hudson Highlands, Catskills, and Adirondacks although definitive proof of breeding in New York was not obtained until 1915. Records of breeding are scanty until the early 1950s when the sites in the Adirondacks became known (Levine 1998). Spofford (1971a) believed that the large burns from ignition of slash left from vast turn of the century clearcuts created conditions favorable for the modern Adirondack population to become established, although fire has been shown to be detrimental to Golden Eagle foraging habitat in the western U.S. (Kochert et al. 1999). In general, the disappearance of this bird from the northern Appalachians coincides with the recovery of the temperate forests of this region (Watson 1997), however Pedrini and Sergio (2001) did not find a stong relationship between afforestation and Golden Eagle reproductive success in the European Alps.
As with many raptor species, Golden Eagles were heavily persecuted by humans for decades until attitudes changed and protections were passed in the 1960s. Shooting, trapping and poisoning were common methods employed to kill eagles. Spofford (1971b) described one nesting area in the Adirondacks where a dozen eagles were shot or trapped over a decade, until the site was finally abandoned when the last eagle was shot. The amount of open area for hunting around most eyries in the Adirondacks was found to have decreased significantly between 1942-1968 (Andrle and Carroll 1988). An uncertain or irregular food supply, related primarily to these marginal habitat conditions result in a very low reproductive rate in the Adirondacks compared to the western U.S. (Spofford 1971b). Survival of the long lived adults (up to 30 yr.) is thus even more crucial to population stability. Electrocutions on power poles were common, especially in the western U.S, until power pole designs were changed. Impacts on migrating eagles of wind power development in the Appalachians is currently being studied by researchers at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, but preliminary investigations indicate that the potential for direct mortality and detrimental behavioral effects is very high (Brandes and Ombalski 2004). Finally, the decline of the eastern Golden Eagle population coincided with that of other raptor species affected by DDT, and other organochlorine pesticides. Because the eastern eagles rely on more of an avian diet, they are at the terminus of a longer food chain and thus accumulate higher contaminant residues (Spofford 1971) than eagles feeding primarily on mammals. Residues of organic contaminants have been detected in Golden Eagles tested in New York and unhatched eggs from the last pair in Maine in 1996 (which had been plagued with nest failure for years) revealed a "tremendous contaminant burden" (New York StateDepartment of Environmental Conservation files). Nevertheless, numbers of migrating Golden Eagles at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania (most likely individuals coming from the northern Quebec population) started declining before the DDT period and appear to have stabilized since the early 1970s (Bednarz et al. 1990). The loss of the Golden Eagle as a breeding species in New York State was thus caused by a combination of factors including a very small and isolated initial population, human persecution, loss of open boreal type habitats (primarily to succession), and the (sub)lethal effects of organochlorine contaminant accumulation.
Any current management in New York State is relevant primarily to the wintering site in Dutchess County. This site occurs on a protected nature preserve, but private lands also encompass some of the roosting territory, and nearly all of the foraging area for the eagles. Logging has occurred in roosting habitat on private land, and should be discouraged since Golden Eagles are shy and reclusive. Thus, care should be taken to minimize any human disturbances (including overzealous birdwatching) in the vicinity of the wintering grounds. In 1993, the eagles built a flimsy stick nest in a pine tree, but have never attempted to nest, although Bald Eagles have recently been found nesting very nearby (NYSDEC files). Productive wetlands occur near the wintering area, and clearly this location must offer enough food for the eagles to consistently overwinter at this site. High prey densities could potentially prompt the eagles to attempt a nest in this area in the future.
Between 50-150 migrants per year pass through New York on their way to wintering grounds in the mid Atlantic and central and southern Appalachians (Brandes and Ombalski 2004). Through the application of sattelite transmitter technology, these birds are now known to originate on breeding grounds in northern Quebec (Brodeur et al. 1996). This strongly suggests that the Adirondack population is an outlier or southern disjunct of this northern source population that may become occupied when densities in Quebec are high and floaters (un-mated birds) are searching for unoccupied territories. Alternatively, it also suggests that re-establishment or hacking of young Quebec birds back into the Adirondacks could be a successful (albeit costly) strategy. At any rate, research opportunities should be sought with agencies in Quebec currently studying Golden Eagles (i.e., G.R.E.B.E., Inc.). Most of the Quebec birds pass through well known migration corridors such as Franklin Mountain in Otsego County, Derby Hill along eastern Lake Ontario, and Hawk Mountain in central Pennsylvania, which because of their unique geographical positions, are also the same areas where wind developments are targeted (Brandes and Ombalski 2004). The National Aviary at The Carnegie Museum of Natural History is currently studying the effects of wind development on migrating Golden Eagles in Pennsylvania and research partnerships with them should be established.
The Golden Eagle prefers wild, remote mountainous areas with open habitat where small game is abundant and cliffs are available for nesting (Andrle and Carroll 1988). Most of the historical nests in New York were placed on inaccessible cliff ledges with a protective overhang. One nest in the Adirondacks was placed 90 feet above the ground in a large White Pine tree. The pair may have several alternate nests and may use the same nest in consecutive years or shift to an alternate nest within their vast hundred square mile territory (Spofford 1971a).
Formerly in New York, this species' range consisted of one small breeding population (approximately 6 sites) in the central Adirondacks. One area in Dutchess County has been consistently occupied by 1-4 wintering eagles since the early 1970s and another was found more recently (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation fiiles). By mining eBird records, another wintering locale was discovered on Storm King Mountain where 1-2 birds have consistently wintered since 2008. As opposed to the first Breeding Bird Atlas when all Golden Eagle records were concentrated around the last known nest in Hamilton County (Andrle and Carroll 1988), 9 breeding season records during Atlas 2000 were scattered throughout the Adirondacks, with 2 sightings also in Allegany County and 1 in Madison County (McGowan and Corwin 2008). In all likelihood, these are juvenile and/or non-breeding adults (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation files).
Holarctic; breeds in mountainous areas throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa from 20-70 degrees north latitude. In North America, this is primarily a western species breeding from Alaska south to Mexico with a discontinuous breeding population estimated at about 100 pairs (Robert 1996) in northern Quebec along Hudson Bay and on the Gaspe Peninsula. Formerly, a small disjunct breeding population occupied the northern Appalachians (Adirondacks, Maine, New Hampshire). Southern populations are sedentary while northern populations migrate south to winter. Individuals from the Quebec population migrate down the Appalachian chain, spending the winter in the central and southern Appalachians (Brodeur et al. 1996; Kochert et al. 2002).
This is a very large raptor with a wingspan up to 6 ft. and weighing 10 lbs. Adults have dark brown plumage, a golden wash on the back of the head and neck, and the tail is faintly banded. Immatures have white at the base of the primaries and a white tail with a dark terminal band. All ages have fully feathered tarsi (legs).
This bird is mostly silent, except during breeding season when 9 different calls are employed (chirp, seeir, pssa, skonk, rattle, chirp, or cluck, wonk, wip, honk, and hiss). The nest is built of sticks and is somewhat smaller than a Bald Eagle nest with the largest on record being 6 meters tall and 2.5 meters wide. The eggs are white, ovate and about 75 mm x 57 mm (Kochert et al. 2002).
The large size, golden nape, feathered tarsi, and wings held at slight dihedral in flight distinguish this species from other raptors.
This raptor is highly territorial, defense is usually accomplished by undulating flight displays, and chase behaviors. Pairs as well as adults and juveniles use cooperative hunting tactics (Johnsgard 1990). Usually monogamous, pairs are often assumed to mate for life, but data are needed to affirm this assumption. Lost mates are replaced quickly, inferring a large unmated floater segment in the population. Usually nests on cliffs, but also in very large White Pine trees, building huge stick nests. One pair will establish several nests within their home range prior to choosing one active nest in which to lay. Females will forego nesting in years with low prey densities (Kochert et al. 2002).
Takes mostly mammals in the western states, especially jackrabbits, but also marmots and ground squirrels. In the Appalachians, owing to different habitat conditions, Golden Eagles prey more heavily on wetland birds. At a former nesting site in the Adirondacks, Spofford (1971) mentioned 20 American Bitterns brought to a single nestling eagle in one location, along with many Great-blue Herons, Snowshoe Hares, Cottontails, Canada Geese and Woodchucks. Carrion, especially deer carcasses, are an important food item in winter.
The phenology depicted below is for the wintering birds in Dutchess County. The eagle(s) typically show up in October and remain through March, although there is much annual variability in arrival and departure dates.
The time of year you would expect to find Golden Eagle present in New York.
Aquila chrysaetos (Linnaeus, 1758)
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Information for this guide was last updated on: April 10, 2019
Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2020. Online Conservation Guide for Aquila chrysaetos. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/golden-eagle/. Accessed September 23, 2020.