The eagles of Eagle County
Ryan Summerlin April 11, 2014
EAGLE COUNTY — The bald eagle and golden eagle are relatively common in Eagle County. Both are the only members of the bird family Accipitridae in the county. As a general rule, eagles are large, powerfully built birds compared to others and have a large head and hooked beak. They are birds of prey (raptors). Because of their size and clean looks, they are truly majestic.
With a white head and tail, the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is among the most distinctive of all the raptors. They are not bald. The name comes from an older term for “white headed.” Their range includes almost all of North America. The bald eagle has a body length up to 3.3 feet and their wingspan can be as large as 7.5 feet. Large wings are needed to lift a bird that can weigh as much as 14 pounds.
The habitat for bald eagles is near larger lakes and streams. These birds feed on fish, which they can capture by scanning the open water for a fish near the surface and swooping down to grab it with their talons. Their wings barely touch the water as they take the fish out of water and fly to a safe spot or their nest to consume it. Bald eagles will also capture other food and are commonly seen consuming carrion.
Bald eagles build the largest nest of any bird in the country. A nest in Florida weighed almost 3 tons. The nest is often at the top of trees and dead snags. They do not build nests in the interior of trees because of their long wings and their need to have an uncluttered area for takeoff. They are not quick, but they can sustain a speed of 30 to 40 miles per hour. I followed one down the Colorado River at 35 mph for nearly 5 miles.
Eggs in Colorado are laid in March and early April. In other areas of the U.S., they are laid from January in the South to May in the far North. There are usually two eggs that are incubated alternately by the male and female for at least a month. A young eaglet can fly 10 to 13 weeks after hatching. It will be at least two or three years before they start developing the white head and tail.
Native Americans have held bald eagles as a spiritual symbol and the bird was chosen as the emblem of the United States of America on June 20, 1782. The argument for the selection was due to their strength, long life and majestic appearance. Ben Franklin did not approve of that choice and wrote to his daughter “I wish that the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly.” He favored the wild turkey.
The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is dark brown with lighter golden-brown plumage on their necks. An immature golden may have white on the tail and some white markings on the wings. An immature bald eagle may often be identified as a golden. The most distinctive feature is that the golden eagle has feathers on the lower leg (tarsi), and the bald eagle has no feathers on lower part of the leg. A mature golden eagle is slightly smaller than the bald eagle. It has a body length up to 2.75 feet, their wingspan can be as large as 7.25 feet and they can weigh as much as 13.5 pounds.
The golden eagle is the most widely distributed species of eagle. It is holarctic (found throughout the northern continents of the world) and can be found in Eurasia, North America and parts of North Africa.
Golden eagles feed on rabbits and many varieties of ground squirrels, even ones as large as a marmot. They also take advantage of carrion.
Nests are most often built on the ledges of high cliffs. Like bald eagles, they will return to that nest for many years. As many as four eggs are laid in the nest, and they hatch within six weeks. Only one or two of the young will survive, and they fledge in about 12 weeks.
Native Americans and other cultures had a reverence for this bird as well because of its hunting prowess. Golden Eagles have been used in falconry for centuries. Golden eagles have been clocked at near 200 mph when diving for prey. That makes it the second fastest animal after the peregrine falcon.
Both of these birds are seen throughout the county year-round. Any time you see a group of magpies or crows near the side of the road, look around for a larger bird. Eagles often feed on carrion. The bald eagle is most often seen along the larger rivers and some of the lakes in the area. Golden eagles can often be found in open areas, especially near places where there are high cliffs.
Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes,” published by Westcliffe Publishers and available at The Bookworm of Edwards, City Market, Amazon and many stores across the state. The book provides photos and text about the history, lore, wildlife and scenery of the mountain passes of Colorado.