The majestic Golden Eagle, named for the shining feathers on the back of its head and neck, inspires awe around the world. Reflecting the reverence many have for this raptor, the Golden Eagle is the national symbol for five countries: Albania, Germany, Austria, Mexico, and Kazakhstan.
The scientific name Aquila chrysaetos comes from the Ancient Greek χρῡσός (khrūsós, “gold”) + ᾱ̓ετός (āetós, “eagle”).
The Golden Eagle is widespread in the wilder country of North America, Europe, and Asia, favoring open country and a variety of habitats, ranging from arctic to desert. Biologists estimate that there are about 20,000 Golden Eagles in the United States, with 80% of the lower 48 states’ Golden Eagle populations. There is also a small breeding population of Golden Eagles in northern Ontario and Quebec, Canada, and a wintering population in the eastern United States. The eastern U.S. population is thought to number no more than 2,000 individuals.
About the same size as the Bald Eagle, the Golden is less of a scavenger and more of a predator, regularly taking prey up to the size of foxes and cranes.. Typically preying on mammals ranging in size from ground squirrels up to prairie-dogs, marmots, and jackrabbits, they may take smaller rodents (voles and mice) or larger animals such as foxes, young pronghorns, or young deer on occasion. They also eat birds, mostly larger ones such as grouse but rarely birds as large as cranes or as small as sparrows. Will also dine on snakes, lizards, large insects and carrion, including dead fish.
The Golden Eagle was important to many Native American tribes who admired the eagle’s courage and strength, and who ascribed mystical powers to the bird and even to its feathers. The Golden Eagle was associated with Zeus, the supreme Greek god, since the late Homeric period. According to one myth the eagle was once a mortal king named Periphas who was considered a god because he was so virtuous and beloved. Zeus became jealous and wanted to destroy him, but through the intervention the god Apollo, Periphas was turned into a Golden Eagle and became Zeus’ companion. In this story Periphas’s wife asked that she too be made into a bird, so Zeus transformed her into a vulture. Both now reside in the constellation Aquila, the eagle.
In another myth the Golden Eagle was the creation of Gaia, the personification of earth or Mother Nature. He appeared to Zeus as he was preparing to go to war with the Titans. Zeus took this as a good omen of his victory and had its image carved on his standard. One recurring image of the eagle is the bird carrying Zeus’s thunderbolts in its talons and retrieving them after they have been hurled at the offending party.
Although the Golden Eagle is widely distributed, it is declining in many areas, especially in places where human populations are growing and creating opportunities for the birds to collide with manmade objects. One of the biggest threats comes from the ever-growing gauntlet of wind turbines being built in areas that are critically important for Golden and Bald Eagles and other birds. Nearly 5,000 turbines operated by five different developers in the Altamont Wind Resource Area in California have killed more than 4700 birds, including 70 Golden Eagles, annually since 1998 (the date when the facilities started keeping track of bird mortality).
I’ve heard it said that there are hybrids between the Golden and Bald Eagles. Considering that the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is in a different genus, that’s highly unlikely.