For the Birds Radio Program: Golden Eagle
(Recording of a Golden Eagle)
While Olympians were seeking the gold in Korea, hawk watchers closer to home were also searching for gold—the Golden Eagle. Two flew over Hawk Ridge a couple of weeks ago, and October promises to send at least a few more of these birds of western wilderness our way.
The Golden Eagle is a true eagle—the same species found in Europe which inspired so many legends. Its scientific name, Aquila, is Latin for eagle. In contrast, the Bald Eagle is actually a sea eagle, as its scientific name, Haliaeetus, reflects. Bald Eagles average slightly bigger—they weigh up to 14 pounds while the Golden Eagle doesn’t exceed 12 1/2 pounds—but both of them have wingspans to 7 1/2 feet. The Golden Eagle is a bird of open country, especially found in hilly or mountainous regions. It’s one of the most majestic birds of all on the wing—it can reach speeds of 200 miles per hour as it drops in a stoop on its prey. It eats small mammals, snakes, and occasionally unsuspecting grouse feeding in the open, and also, like the Bald Eagle, scavenges on carrion. 90% of its prey is rabbits, squirrels, and prairie dogs.
Unlike the Bald Eagle, the Golden Eagle virtually never eats fish. The next time you see an eagle in a zoo or a museum, look at its legs. The Bald Eagle, which is adapted for catching fish in its talons, doesn’t have feathers on its legs to drag underwater. But the Golden Eagle has feathers all the way down to its toes. That’s one of the esoteric characteristics that ornithologists use to classify birds, and it’s one of the reasons that Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles are often not found on the same page in bird books.
There aren’t many birds in North America that have suffered the persecution that Golden Eagles have. The Indians used eagle feathers in clothing and for many rituals, but the deep respect that Indians felt for this supreme bird of prey, along with the fact that Indians knew how to live in harmony with their world, kept Golden Eagles abundant for millennia. But as soon as European man entered the scene, the Golden Eagle was in trouble. White men were haunted by fears stirred up in fairy tales about eagles carrying off babies, and refused to believe that the vast majority of lambs and goats eaten by eagles are actually scavenged after dying from other causes. So eagle killing became one of the many barbaric sports that so-called civilized man introduced to North America. At least 20,000 Golden Eagles were killed in western Texas and New Mexico alone between 1942 and 1961. Pilots from one Texas airport used to keep track of the eagles they shot from the air—between 675 and 1008 every year between 1941 and 1946. It wasn’t until 1961 that aerial eagle hunting was prohibited by federal law. And they’re still killed in alarming numbers in steel traps, by eating poisoned bait, and by electrocution at power lines. This avian symbol of excellence, the bird that inspired such common phrases as eagle eyes and legal eagle, is an essential part of American folklore and history. It’s also my little boy Joey’s favorite bird. I hope that we bequeath him an earth where Golden Eagles flourish, and where Americans once again learn to live in harmony with the world around us.
(Recording of a Golden Eagle)
This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”