The Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is an extremely widespread bird of prey that lives everywhere from Desert Mountains to the Arctic tundra. Living in such extreme habitats can be tough at the best of times, so how do these birds survive? We usually think of birds like geese, hummingbirds, and swallows when it comes to migration, but you might be surprised to learn that Golden Eagles migrate too.
This guide covers everything you need to know about where, when, and how Golden Eagles migrate, so sit back and read along with us!
Golden Eagles are partial migrants with both migratory and sedentary populations. The North American subspecies (A. c. canadensis) is migratory across much of the continent, with some birds travelling thousands of miles between breeding and non-breeding grounds.
Golden Eagles are resident throughout the year in the western half of the United States, as well as much of Mexico to the south and parts of Canada to the North. Their numbers increase each winter when birds that breed in Alaska and Northern Canada arrive to escape the harsh northern conditions.
Golden Eagles from the eastern half of the United States and Canada are complete migrants, although the southernmost breeders may be somewhat sedentary when conditions allow.
Non-migratory Golden Eagles may move widely when they first reach independence. However, the young birds head off in any direction rather than following a set migration route. These long-lived birds of prey first start breeding when they are about five years old.
Keep reading to learn more about the timing of Golden Eagle migration and when you might see these birds in your part of the world.
Pictured: A Golden Eagle landing in a mountain meadow
Golden Eagles migrate in the spring and fall. Their spring migration may begin as early as February and is mostly over by May. Their return trip runs between late August and December. Factors such as latitude, local weather events, age, and the success of their nesting season affect their timing.
Arrival and departure dates from selected States:
Golden Eagles in prime habitats of the American West may remain within their breeding areas throughout the year, but these birds are territorial, and nesting sites are limited. Northern breeders have adapted to take advantage of the temporary seasonal abundance in the far north.
However, they must return south to escape the harsh winter conditions on their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska when snow and ice blanket the land, and their prey either goes into hibernation or migrates south to warmer climates.
Golden Eagles in prime habitats of the American West may remain within their breeding areas throughout the year
Golden Eagle migration distances vary greatly, depending on where the individuals breed and overwinter. Some birds can travel over 250 miles in a single day, and the longest migrations may span an incredible 3000 miles or more!
The Golden Eagle migration could take anything from a week to two months - it all depends on the distance, hunting opportunities, and weather patterns along the way. They are generally less hurried on their southward fall migration than their spring breeding migration.
Golden Eagles in North America can be seen as two separate geographical groups, i.e., the large western population and the small eastern population.
Most Golden Eagles from the eastern population migrate from northeastern Canada to states like Kentucky and Tennessee in the American Southeast via the Western ridges of the Appalachian mountains. The western population migrates along the Rocky Mountains between breeding grounds as far north as Alaska and overwintering grounds as distant as Mexico.
Golden Eagles do not migrate long distances non-stop, partly because they rely on certain weather conditions to help them fly efficiently. They may also spend time in good hunting areas, and tracking studies show that these birds may stop to hunt and explore some areas for days or even weeks.
Pictured: A Golden Eagle flying low across its hunting grounds
Golden Eagles have various migration strategies that are mostly determined by the climate and prey availability where they live. These birds occur throughout the year in much of the West, although the eastern population in North America is almost entirely migratory.
Eastern migrants travel through the following areas:
Golden Eagles are widespread in Canada and are migratory across most of the country. In the west, these birds regularly breed in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, The Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. The small eastern population nests mostly in Quebec, Labrador, and Northern Ontario.
Golden Eagles are not migratory within the United Kingdom. The breeding population is mainly confined to Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland, and they do not appear to be mixing with birds from mainland Europe.
Migratory Golden Eagles move south in the winter, mostly along the Rocky Mountains in the west and the Appalachian Mountains in the east. They reach the southern limits of their overwintering range in Florida in the Southeast and Central Mexico in the south. These birds often return to the same wintering territories year after year.
Adult Golden Eagles occur in areas with suitable nesting and hunting sites from central Mexico (where they are the national bird) to Northern Alaska in the summer. Migratory birds typically return to the same nest sites in Canada and Alaska each year. There is a high breeding density in Alaska in the Northwest, while breeders from the eastern population return to Northern Quebec and Labrador.
Pictured: A Golden Eagle resting in natural habitat
The Golden Eagle migration can span several weeks and cover thousands of miles over rugged and beautiful terrain. These birds are right on top of the avian food chain, and adults have no predators to worry about in flight. However, despite being protected by law, accidental lead ammunition poisoning from feeding on shot game and gut piles still poses a major risk, and wind turbines are dangerous obstacles to some birds.
Golden Eagles are masters of flight. Rather than simply flapping their immense wings in the direction they want to travel, these birds use prevailing winds, weather systems, and rising air currents to their advantage.
Rising heat during the day and winds deflected upwards from steep slopes provide lift. Used wisely, this free energy allows the birds to gain altitude and simply glide using gravity. Ideal flying routes often follow narrow corridors, and this funnels many birds together, making it possible to see hundreds of migrating Golden Eagles flying over certain areas on some days.
They are not the only birds to migrate in these areas, and geese and other waterfowl prey are readily available. They will hunt a variety of prey along the way, however, including small mammals and the carcasses of larger game like deer. You can learn more about the Golden Eagle diet here.
The Golden Eagle migration can span several weeks and cover thousands of miles over rugged and beautiful terrain
Golden Eagles do not migrate after dark. These large birds sleep at night and resume their migration during the day when wind and rising air currents make the going much easier.
Golden Eagles occasionally gather in groups (kettles) of several dozen individuals, although you are most likely to spot them migrating on their own.
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