The untamable ferocity of birds of prey is awe-inspiring. In a field crowded with formidable predators, the golden eagle rules.
A golden eagle is daunting. Females are larger than males, and a hefty specimen can weigh 14 pounds and have a wingspan longer than 7 feet. Golden feathers cap the crown and nape, making identification easy if the bird is seen.
It takes five years for a golden eagle to reach maturity, and first-year birds have prominent white splashes at the base of the tail and on the underwings. They become increasingly dark with age. The oldest known wild eagle reached 23 years; one in captivity lived to 46.
As befits their size, golden eagles capture prey off limits to lesser raptors. Rabbits are a dietary staple, but much larger fare is sometimes caught. They sometimes take bobcats, coyotes, herons, turkeys and even young white-tailed deer. In days of yore, when falconry was an entitlement of nobility, the golden eagle was the bird of kings.
Although golden eagles prefer live prey, they are not above sampling carrion, especially if it is venison. Fred Rau of Dayton recently sent me a series of spectacular images from western Pike County. Rau had focused a trail camera on a fresh deer carcass and was rewarded with crisp images of a golden eagle.
Golden eagles are quite rare in Ohio, with perhaps a half-dozen sightings a year. Although fairly common in mountainous regions of western North America, they are far scarcer in the East. There is a breeding population in northern Quebec and Labrador, and evidence suggests that area is the origin of Ohio birds.
Small numbers of them winter in Ohio, but they’re tough to find. Golden eagles frequent remote, sparsely populated regions, keep huge territories and are people-shy. Trail cams fixed on deer carcasses are an effective technique for documenting the birds.
Historical records suggest that small numbers of golden eagles have long wintered along Ohio’s glaciated Allegheny Plateau. The region is the interface of unglaciated hill country and the flatlands to the west. Records from the early 1900s include birds in Adams, Highland and Pike counties. Vast reclaimed strip mines such as the Wilds in Muskingum County have also harbored wintering golden eagles.
While these eagles undoubtedly take plenty of rabbits and other small mammals, an abundant deer population provides lots of carrion. Increased efforts to place trail cams on deer carcasses might catch photos of more golden eagles.
For those who think of Ohio as all industry and agriculture, think again. Golden eagles are among the wildest of North American birds, and their presence in Ohio’s hill country speaks to our wilderness heritage.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jim mccormac.blogspot.com