How do golden eagles hunt?

Telescopic vision and terrifying talons: be glad you're not a Scottish rabbit

Golden eagles are apex predators, adapted to hunt in very harsh landscapes. With a wingspan of more than two metres, they are huge birds, capable of lifting prey weighing as much as five kilograms. There are documented cases of golden eagles attacking adult deer and even a bear cub but their usual targets are hares, foxes, grouse and, on the coast, seabirds.

Golden eagles nest in trees and on remote mountain crags. They can’t hunt in thick forest so they have specialised to scour moors and uplands. Food is much scarcer here and the eagles have to patrol huge territories; sometimes as much as 160 km2. To do this they operate like stealth bombers, flying very high above the ground to scan a wide area without alerting their prey. They need to be able to soar for hours at a time and strong enough to kill whatever animal presents an opportunity.

Death from the sky

The golden eagle rarely attacks prey directly from altitude with a dive bomb or ‘stoop’. Instead, it wheels out of the sky, some distance away and swoops in from downwind, close to the ground. The eagle relies on a sudden overwhelming attack. If it misjudges the initial strike, it’s unlikely to prevail in a chase.

Golden eagles use the primary feathers on their wingtips to control the turbulent vortices of air along the trailing edge of the wings and increase lift. The eagle can spread its tail wide to merge with the wings into a single ‘delta wing’, or folded for maximum speed.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 11

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