Where do golden eagles live?

The American golden eagle lives in North America, in the countries of Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

Wait for a second, American golden eagle? Yes, as a species, the golden eagle also occurs in Europe, Asia, and parts of North Africa. Throughout its worldwide range, it is found only in northern continents.

The sub-species in North America is known as the American golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos canadensis). It is referred to as the golden eagle throughout this article. 

What is the golden eagle range?

Golden eagles in North America do not occupy a continuous range but have split ranges in western and eastern North America. Most golden eagles live in the west, while a small number live in the East.

The range of eagles in the west is huge and expands and contracts throughout the year. Western Eagles are composed of resident, short distance, and long-distance migrants. These movements result in a highly mobile overall population occupying and vacating parts of their western through an annual cycle.

Interestingly, most golden eagles in the east are migratory. Nearly all adult golden eagles migrate north to breed in Northern Canada and return to spend the winter or nonbreeding months in relatively warmer regions of southern Canada and the northern United States.

Golden eagle breeding range 

Map of the golden eagle breeding range. Map generated by eBird.

Golden eagles expand and contract their range throughout the year. They expand their range as they migrate to the breeding grounds.

In Canada

The golden eagle breeds in discontinuous areas in western and eastern Canada. In western Canada, the eagle breeds in small parts of the Nunavut Region, larger portions of the Northwestern Territories, and Yukon Provinces. Further south, they breed in small parts of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and most British Columbia provinces.

In eastern Canada, the golden eagle nests in disjunct areas around the Hudson Bay in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Northern Quebec, and small parts of New Brunswick.  

In the United States 

Golden eagles breed in most of Alaska and most western States. The breeding range’s eastern boundary encompasses the southwest corner of North Dakota, the west half of South Dakota and Nebraska, most of Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas’s Southwest corner. 

Although there have been scattered breeding records in the Appalachian Mountains and other eastern states, most eagles only spend the winter in the region and return to breed in Northern Canada.

In Mexico

The golden eagle is resident and breeds in central Mexico, which includes the estates of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Cahouila, Durango, San Luis Potosi,  Guanajuato, and Queretaro. There are isolated records of nesting golden eagles further south, east, and west of the central Mexican region. 

Nonbreeding Range 

Golden eagle’s non-breeding or wintering range. Map generated by eBird.

Golden eagles in the west

Most golden eagles in the western U.S. are year-round residents, but part of the population migrates north to Alaska and Northern Canada to breed and then return south for the winter months. 

For resident eagles, the breeding and nonbreeding ranges are mostly the same. For migratory birds the breeding and non-breeding ranges are different.

Golden eagles in the east

Fewer golden eagles live in Eastern U.S. Most eastern birds breed in Northern Canada and migrate to southern Canada and northeastern U.S. states for the winter months or non-breeding season.

The golden eagle wintering range includes the Canadarian provinces of Southern Quebec and Ontario. In the United States, golden eagles spend the winter mostly in the Appalachian Mountains, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Golden eagles in smaller numbers spend the winter further south. 

Golden Eagle Habitat 

Golden eagles live/use various habitat types ranging from sea level to high mountains. Eagles switch habitats throughout an annual cycle favoring certain types over others, mostly in response to prey availability. Older golden eagles appear to use slightly better-quality habitats than younger birds.

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The habitat types most commonly used by golden eagles include open expanses dominated by short vegetation, interspersed with mountain ranges, rolling hills, or other similar topographic features. Golden eagles also use open and semi-open woodlands.

Perhaps the most important golden eagle habitat features are the presence of prey in sufficient numbers, elevated perches, and topographic reliefs that eagles can use as perches, nesting, and roosting places. Topographic reliefs are important because they generate updraft air currents that eagles need to patrol their extensive hunting grounds.

Specific habitat types include grasslands, desert scrub, open habitats with mixed woodlands, thinly forested areas, and a combination of habitat types that support substantial prey populations and offer many perches.

Golden eagle biologists found differences in habitat use between western and eastern eagles. Western eagles use the typical open habitats interspersed with geographic reliefs. Eastern eagles, at least in parts of their eastern range, use forested areas largely because open expanses of open habitats are not available in the region and eagles have adapted to forested habitats.

Unlike bald eagles, the golden eagle is not associated with water. Field observations suggest that they even refuse to fly over large bodies of water such as lakes. 

Breeding Habitat  

Typical golden eagle breeding habitat. Nesting sites, particularly those in prime locations such as the nest on this photo, are used every year. Eagles add nesting material on top of last year’s nest making the nest bigger and taller over the years. Photo: Mick Thompson.

Overall, the breeding and wintering grounds are similar. As mentioned above, the ideal breeding habitat comprises open expanses of grasslands, shrublands, scrub, agricultural, and open and semi-open woodlands. The breeding habitat constitutes elements within the general habitat and includes cliffs, steep hillsides, rocky outcrops, and large trees where eagles can build nests.

Golden eagles prefer cliff ledges for nesting but are flexible in their requirements when the ideal features are not present. In conditions where the habitat offers plenty of prey, eagles nest on a variety of non-traditional substrates. Such as short oak trees, sturdy clumps of scrub, and bare ground.

References:

  • Young, D. D., Jr., C. L. McIntyre, P. J. Bente, T. R. McCabe and R. E. Ambrose (1995). Nesting by Golden Eagles on the north slope of the Brooks Range in northeastern Alaska. Journal of Field Ornithology 66: 373–379.
  • Miller, T. A., R. P. Brooks, M. J. Lanzone, J. Cooper, K. O’Malley, D. Brandes, A. Duerr, and T. E. Katzner (2017). Space use and home range characteristics of Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) in eastern North America during breeding season and winter. Condor 119: 697–719.
  • Marzluff, J. M., S. T. Knick, M. S. Vekasy, L. S. Schueck, and T. J. Zarriello (1997). Spatial use and habitat selection of Golden Eagles in southwestern Idaho. Auk 114(4): 673–687.

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