The Golden Eagle – Aquila chrysaetos

The Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) in flight is one of the most spectacular natural sights and is the second largest bird of prey in Great Britain. It is found from North America through Europe, and across Asia into Japan.

Although once found in England, centuries of persecution have meant that this magnificent bird is now restricted to Scotland, although some have recently been re-introduced to Ireland. To mark the start of Springwatch 2011 – and with golden eagles a popular subject for Springwatch’s ‘nest-cams’ – we introduce the Booth Museum’s Golden Eagle displays, given pride of place at the front of the museum.

Returning with Prey
Returning with Prey

This grand case is one of the most impressive of Edward Booth’s original bird displays. The taxidermy examples have been arranged in accordance with the natural behaviour Booth observed and painted whilst hunting for the birds in Scotland, during the 1870s. The display shows an eagle on its nest, with its mate returning with prey for the chicks. They are displayed in a mock-up of the mountainous terrain of the Scottish Highlands, where the birds were collected.

This exhibit is one of three Golden Eagle cases on display at the museum, showing the birds in a variety of behaviours and life stages, and all created for Edward Booth himself. The taxidermy, like most of Booth’s original birds, is of a very high standard, with each individual looking lifelike and well preserved. The exhibits at the Booth Museum are now one of the only legal ways to get a close up view of a Golden Eagle nest.

The Golden Eagle – Aquila chrysaetos
The Golden Eagle – Aquila chrysaetos

Golden Eagles are monogamous and build large nests which they will return to each year. They lay between one to four eggs, but usually only one or two chicks survive to fledge. Their diet consists mainly of small mammals, but they have been observed taking much larger prey, including driving full grown deer over cliffs. They will also take birds up to the size of swans, and will feed on carrion and large insects.

The Golden Eagle is historically revered throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It is considered to be greatly mystical in native cultures across North America, and their feathers are said to be as important to Native American tribes as the crucifix is to Christians. In Mongolian and Kazakh tribal communities The Golden Eagle is still sent after foxes and wolves, and many were owned by Genghis Khan, who was a keen falconer. In Europe, the Golden Eagle was reserved for Emperors and was the symbol of the Roman Empire. It has been used in the heraldry of many member states of the medieval Holy Roman Empire and is the national bird of Kazakhstan and Mexico. In 2004 it was voted as the new national bird for Scotland in a public poll. It was adopted as the standard of Napoleon’s Grand Armée, and the Saladin Golden Eagle is prominent on the Egyptian flag.

Despite this, the Golden Eagle has been persecuted by people for centuries. In Britain they were historically slaughtered by game keepers and farmers for taking livestock. Although now illegal, and subject to severe penalties, eagles are still poisoned or shot, despite a number of studies showing their impact on livestock is minimal. Although endangered in the UK and many other European countries, the Golden Eagle is not considered to be at risk internationally, thanks to healthy populations in North America and Asia.

Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences

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