Tuesday, Nov 03 2009 05:45 PM

Jon Hammond: Golden Eagles: Masters of the Tehachapi skies

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There are many different species of raptors in the Tehachapi area — hawks, falcons, owls and other birds of prey — but the most spectacular of them all is the mighty Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos).

Standing almost three feet tall with a six-foot wingspan, these powerful birds are easy to identify. Sometimes you might see an especially large Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in the distance and wonder for a moment if you’ve seen an eagle, but when you actually do spot a Golden, you don’t mistake it for a hawk.

Golden eagles derive their common name from the light tawny feathers on the heads of adult birds. This golden nape is the color of pale grizzly bear fur or the sun-lightened hair of a California surfer.

Other than that eagles are quite dark overall, though juveniles often have white markings on their wings and tail. They don’t reach maturity until their third year.

Golden eagles are present in the Tehachapi area year-round — you may not see them, but they are here. When the Tehachapi Mountains Birding Club conducts the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count in Tehachapi and Bear Valley, we always record eagles on both counts.

The west sides of Stallion Springs and Bear Valley Springs overlooking the San Joaquin Valley are favored sites for these enormous soaring birds, and they also frequent the skies over Cummings Valley, Sand Canyon, Mountain Valley Airport and other areas.

Feathered sailplanes

Flying high and fast while riding a breeze, eagles can cover ground so quickly that they can overhead in one place and then be miles away only minutes later. I have seen them flying over virtually every part of Tehachapi and have spotted them perched or on the ground in most areas.

Eagles primarily eat rabbits and hares (blacktailed jackrabbits in our area) and their breeding success or failure often seems tied to the abundance or dearth of rabbits, though Goldens can take larger prey. They tend to hunt while soaring and then plunge and strike with startling speed.

Eagles have no regular predators and fear no other bird, though they will yield to the giant California Condors when both are attempting to feed on the same carcass.

Eagles have no objections to feeding on carrion when it is available and will scavenge the carcasses of deer, elk, cattle and others. Hunters in backcountry areas often report eagles feeding on gut piles from field-dressed deer less than an hour after the hunt.

Nesting in Tehachapi

Golden eagles nest in the Tehachapi area and I have seen four of their sprawling nests over the years, though of course there have been countless others I didn’t see.
Eagles begin incubating as soon as the first egg is laid, rather than waiting for the full clutch like most songbirds and game birds, so there isn’t a closely synchronized hatching — the first chick tends to hatch at least a day before any other siblings and thus stands the best chance for survival.

Competition for the food that the parents bring to the nest is fierce so any younger chicks often get weaker and weaker and perish, leaving only the first-born, though it is not unheard of for a pair of eagles to fledge two or three chicks in a year of abundance.

Admired by Nüwa Indians

Goldens are of special significance to the local Nüwa (Kawaiisu) Indian people, as they are to many tribes. The Nüwa word for them is muhn-hi and large eagle feathers were prized, while even the down feathers were woven into skirts of special symbolic significance.

Eagles were taken using a pit trap, a method in which the hunter would lie or crouch in a shallow pit covered with willow branches, placing a rabbit or carrion above to attract an eagle.

When an eagle landed and began feeding, the hunter would suddenly reach up through the willow poles and attempt to seize the bird by its feet. Despite their sharp hooked bills, raptors seldom peck or strike with their beak, they fight almost entirely with their powerful feet and ice pick-like talons.

This is the opposite of seabirds, whose flat rubbery and often webbed feet are little threat. Seabirds are experts with their bills and strike with lightning speed — there have been biologists blinded (I’m not exaggerating) when catching seabirds, and I knew of an ornithologist whose face bore a prominent scar from a savage bite received while banding Brown Pelicans.

Watch those talons!

Eagles are not aggressive towards people but you must use great caution when handling them. A volunteer at a raptor rehabilitation center in Oregon was bringing in a plate of chicken to a recovering golden eagle  when the bird struck at his face with one foot and the eagle’s thumb talon went up through underside of the man’s chin, clear through his tongue and out his mouth. Ouch.

Happily, he was able to remove the eagle dangling from his face without harming it and the rehabber recovered from his unplanned tongue piercing.

I have held golden eagles, both living and otherwise, and found that their viselike feet are exactly the same size as my hands, and I have large hands. Unlike my hands, each of their talons is tipped with a two and a half-inch-long dagger of a claw.
Adult Goldens make a totally non-threatening chirping sound that has been described as chiup or kee-yep and juveniles beg their parents for food with a piercing kikikikiki-yip call.

For this reason, moviemakers often use the shrieking descending whistle call of a red-tailed hawk as a more dramatic stand-in for both Goldens and for Bald Eagles, whose mild chirping is even more plaintive and less intimidating than that of the Goldens.

Often soaring thousands of feet above the ground on a warm Tehachapi day, golden eagles are an inspiring and unforgettable sight. And there’s always some in our area, so keep your eyes open for them — seeing them is its own reward.

Have a good week.

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