The Golden Eagle is one of the largest, fastest, nimblest raptors in North America. Lustrous gold feathers gleam on the back of its head and neck; a powerful beak and talons advertise its hunting prowess. You're most likely to see this eagle in western North America, soaring on steady wings or diving in pursuit of the jackrabbits and other small mammals that are its main prey. Sometimes seen attacking large mammals, or fighting off coyotes or bears in defense of its prey and young, the Golden Eagle has long inspired both reverence and fear.
When viewing large dark colored birds soaring at altitude, it can be difficult to distinguish young Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, and Turkey Vultures.
In courtship, two birds circle high in the air, making shallow dives at each other. The nest is most often on a cliff ledge, or in a large tree, and may be used for many years. 1-3 eggs are laid in the large nest of sticks, and both parents take turns incubating them for 41-45 days. The male does the hunting at first, but as the young get larger, both parents must hunt to feed them. The first flight will be in 60-70 days. Northern birds are migratory. Because their common prey animals (mammals) don’t tend to ingest pesticides, Golden Eagles have escaped the harm sustained by fish-eating or bird-eating raptors from DDT and related chemicals. When these pesticides thinned the eggshells of many birds of prey, Golden Eagles’ shells retained normal thickness. Pesticide concentrations in their blood stayed below levels known to cause reproductive problems. The population in eastern Canada may migrate to Kentucky in the winter. Bernheim Forest and Arboretum in nearby Bullitt County, KY, is host to several young Golden Eagles each winter.
The RROKI directors have long wanted to have a Golden Eagle as an education bird. In October 2010, we got the chance of a lifetime when another raptor center closed down and US Fish and Wildlife offered us their Golden Eagle. Her left wing was entirely amputated, and she had never been used in educational programs before. They warned us that she was aggressive and hard to work with. When she arrived from Tennessee, John put her in a quiet cage. Each day he would sit with her, calmly reading a book, to accustom her to people. In a surprisingly short time, she became a friendly bird who sang little songs to the volunteers as they walked by. Louisville Gas & Electric Co. sponsored her, and in a contest one of their employees suggested "Aurelia," meaning "golden" as a name.
Since she was a big bird with only one wing, she had trouble keeping balanced on the glove. At programs, we found it best to hold her travel crate up to a perch, and let her step out on her own. She had been at the other center for 19 years, and we never knew for sure how old she was, but it must have been pretty old. In February, 2013, she started feeling bad, and died. We all still miss her.