Scotland's Wildlife: Golden Eagle

One of the most powerful predators in the Highlands, the golden eagle is a huge bird of prey; in the UK only the white-tailed eagle is larger.

Golden Eagle (c) Chuck Abbe

It has long, broad wings and a long tail, and likes to soar and glide on air currents, holding its wings in a shallow 'V'.

The plumage colours range from black-brown to dark brown, with a golden-buff crown and nape, which give the bird its name. Immature birds have a duller more mottled appearance with a white-banded tail and a white patch at the carpal joint on the wing.

Eagles have traditional territories and nesting places which may be used for generations. Size ranges widely from a 1.5m wingspan up to 2.4m and weight ranges from 2.5kg to 7kg. Females are significantly larger than the males - from 25 to 35% heavier.

When the birds find suitable nesting site it may be used for years; some sites have been known to be used by generations of birds over centuries. Typically the pair choose a large tree or cliff site. Both birds gather sticks and branches for the nest, although they will occasionally use anything that comes to hand: even antlers and a shepherd's crook have been found in nest constructions! The nests are added to each year and become very large; tree nests are usually 2-3m across while cliff nests are smaller at about 2m high.

While numbers of golden eagles have improved there are still large areas of their preferred habitat unpopulated. The birds are afforded the highest degree of protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, however, they are often still found poisoned.

Where to see them

Golden eagles live in the wild, open moorlands and mountains of Scotland, favouring islands and remote glens. Look for them soaring high over hillsides in the Highlands. The few English eagles can be looked for at the RSPB's Haweswater reserve and watchpoint in Cumbria.

When to see them

All year round. Look for displaying birds, with their looping and plunging flights, on fine days in winter and early spring.

Page first published on Friday 4th April 2008
Page last updated on Friday 17th October 2008

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Latin Name: Aquila chrysaetos
Gaelic Name: Iolair-bhuib
Meaning: Golden Eagle
Body length 79-88cm
Wingspan 150-240cm
Weight 2.5-7kg

Physical Description: Adults are a uniform brown colour with a paler brown head, but juveniles have a white patch on the base of the tail and on the underside of the wings. They have a square tail and fully-feathered legs.

Scottish Distribution: Winters & breeds in mainland and islands north of the Highland Boundary Fault (except Buchan plain & Northern Isles) & Galloway.
Habitat: These large raptors prefer mountainous, often treeless, habitats, although they require large trees or rock faces for nesting.
Diet: Rodents, rabbits, hares and young deer. They also hunt birds (particularly grouse), and occasionally feed on reptiles. They often feed on carrion (particularly sheep and lambs).

Young: Egg laying happens in mid-March. The female does most of the incubating, especially overnight and the first chick hatches after 44 days. When the second chick hatches a few days later it is less than half the size of the first. The female stays in the nest with the young chicks while the male hunts, leaving food on the edge of the nest for the female to distribute. The second chick is given less food and often dies. At about eight weeks eaglets start vigorous wing exercises. The surviving young leave the nest between 10 and 12 weeks old, when their wings and muscles have grown strong enough. Young birds rarely disperse further than 30 miles in their first five years.

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