Golden eagles can be found in Southeast Minnesota and Western Wisconsin throughout the winter.
In the valleys around his Buffalo City, Wis., home, Scott Mehus searches for golden eagles. It’s a winter morning ritual that Mehus, the education director at the National Eagle Center (NEC) in Wabasha, has become accustomed to over the past 17 years. “I’ve been going out every day,” he said. By this he means going out at sunrise during a period from late October until about Valentine’s Day, when the golden eagles are in Southeast Minnesota and Western Wisconsin.
Until recently, not much was known about the golden eagles that arrive each winter from their nesting habitats up in northern Canada. “I started the golden eagle survey 11 years ago, and the number of golden eagles has gone up each year,” Mehus said, adding, “It’s not the population that has increased, but that the observers are getting better at identifying them.” As the lesser known relative of the bald eagle, oftentimes the golden eagle was — and still is — mistaken for a juvenile bald eagle, which looks similar to the golden eagle because of its dark brown feathers and the absence of the distinctive white head. Although information about the golden eagle has improved with each passing seasonal survey, Mehus and his colleagues at the NEC are still focused on learning about the habitat requirements, migration patterns and breeding origins of the somewhat elusive bird. “This is a species that we know very little about,” he said. “We need to understand them better.”
This January Whitewater State Park and the NEC will hold a golden eagle program on Saturday, January 10, starting at 10:30 a.m at Whitewater State Park. “It’s a general public education program,” Mehus explained. “We talk a little bit about identification, the history of the survey and Donald the golden eagle will [make an appearance].” Donald is the NEC’s only golden eagle and joined his fellow eagles in 2008 after he was found injured on a California road. In addition to the educational program, the Annual Wintering Golden Eagle Count will take place on Saturday, January 17, from 10 a.m. until noon, also at Whitewater.
Golden Eagle Project
While there are over 70 different types of eagles in the world, only two live in North America, the bald eagle and the golden eagle. According to Mehus, eagles fall into four family groupings, and golden eagles belong to the booted eagle family, whereas bald eagles belong to the fish or sea eagle family. One way to tell the difference between the two eagles is by looking at their feet. Golden eagles have feathers all the way down their legs, while the legs of bald eagles are bare, making it easier for them to wick off water in the winter months. Unlike the bald eagle, the golden eagle does not live near water, and predominantly preys on rabbits, squirrels, turkeys and even larger game such as caribou calfs and reindeer. “They prefer forested valleys around Winona and Wabasha,” Mehus said. Due to the vast barrenness of northern Canada, not much is known about the various patterns of golden eagles during the summer months; however, the NEC’s Golden Eagle Project hopes to change that. In a partnership with the NEC, the Minnesota Audubon, Society, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service–Winona, the Golden Eagle Project aims to understand the habitat requirements, determine breeding origins and migration patterns of the golden eagles that winter in the bluff lands of Southeast Minnesota, Western Wisconsin and Northeast Iowa. Through methods of field documentation, tracking devices and general awareness of and education about these birds of prey, Mehus believes that Americans will become more aware of the golden eagle. “We appreciate the [bald] eagle as a national symbol and we recognize that,” Mehus explained, “but the golden eagle is also found on many flags around the world. They are magnificent birds of prey.”
Learn more about golden eagles and see maps showing the migration patterns of several golden eagles fitted with tracking devices at nationaleaglecenter.org.