How to describe animals

There are many ways to describe the same animal or plant.

The important thing is to understand the differences between the labels we can apply to wildlife, and use them appropriately.

If you were lucky enough to see a golden eagle, how would you describe it?

Golden Eagle description graphic: BBC Nature

All of the above are appropriate descriptions.

You might use a certain label depending on the context.

For example, you might describe seeing an eagle if you are unsure of the species. Or a bird or prey if you are unsure whether it is an eagle, hawk or kite. Or a raptor if you've seen what appears to be a bird of prey out hunting during the day, with few other clues.

Scientific terms, such as species names, are the most accurate, and correspond to a predetermined set of characteristics.

However, common names are more often used.

Although they are less specific, and can be open to misinterpretation, they are generally easier to understand.

If you spotted a golden eagle in the UK, it would be appropriate to describe it as an eagle, or raptor. But it would only be appropriate to call a golden eagle a 'Thunderbird' in north America, in the context of native American culture.

There are also other ways to describe wildlife, using symbols or folklore for example.

Such depictions and descriptions often exaggerate certain characteristics, and alter our view of the animal or plant being described.

Often they say more about our own culture than the wildlife they are based on.


Common names

Golden eagles are a magnificent sight in Britain, although not a common one. Heavily persecuted in the past, these birds are now gradually increasing in number with 400 breeding pairs thought to be in Scotland at present.

Golden eagles are variously eagles, raptors, bird of prey, and of course, birds.

Golden eagle A bird like no other?

Scientific names

The golden eagle was first described by Linnaeus in his 1758 Systema naturae as Falco chrysaetos. It was renamed, being moved to the new genus Aquila, by French ornithologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson in 1760.

The Aquila genus of birds belong to the family Accipitridae, which also contains all species of eagle, hawk harrier, kite and Old World vulture.

Accipitridae The Accipitridae family of birds


The golden eagle is thought to be among the most common national animals in the world, being the symbol of Albania, Germany, Austria, Kazakhstan and Mexico (depicted right).

In 2006, the Scottish government rejected a proposal to formally declare the golden eagle as the national bird of Scotland, where around 400 pairs currently breed.

Coat of arms of Mexico Coat of arms of Mexico

Cultural emblem

The golden eagle has become a popular emblem of sporting teams around the world.

It also forms part of the the Special Warfare insignia of the US military, in which a golden eagle is depicted clutching a US Navy anchor, trident, and flintlock style pistol. The insignia is awarded to Navy service personnel who are qualified members of the US SEAL special forces teams.

Navy Special Warfare Trident insignia worn by qualified U.S. Navy SEALs Navy Special Warfare Trident insignia worn by qualified U.S. Navy SEALs


There is evidence that the golden eagle was known as the Drein, or 'King of Birds' in Druid culture.

In North America, the eagle is also thought to be the inspiration for the legend of the 'Thunderbird', a bird of supernatural power and strength.

A Thunderbird adorns a totem pole (copyright Dr Haggis) A Thunderbird adorns a totem pole

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