Queen of the Alpine skies: The golden eagle
by Matthew Beattie
Few birds have made such an indelible mark on European culture as the golden eagle. Symbolic of intelligence, courage, strength and immortality, she has featured on coats of arms and military insignia across the continent since before Roman times. Yet, less than a century ago, this queen of the skies was headed for extinction.
Silently circling on the thermals of warm air that rise from the bare rocks of a mountainside, the golden eagle detects the telltale movement of a marmot in an alpine meadow below. Her keen eyesight allows her to spot prey from a distance of three kilometers, so the marmot is an easy target. The hunter swoops down for the kill …
The hunter becomes the hunted
It is a natural circle of life that has played out in the Alps for millennia. The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is a master hunter and marmots are among its favorite prey. With a wingspan of up to 2.2 meters, it is one of Switzerland’s largest raptors and one of its best-loved birds. However, for many years, the golden eagle was ruthlessly persecuted across the Alps and very nearly followed other large predators such as the brown bear and lynx – and the carrion-eating bearded vulture – into extinction.
“Golden eagles face very strong competition from their own species.”
On the brink
Marmots are not the only creatures hunted by the golden eagle. With their large wingspans, powerful bodies and sharp talons, they are quite capable of taking animals up to the size of a young roe deer – including small livestock. This made them unpopular with the farmers who raised goats and sheep on the mountains. In the Swiss canton of Grisons alone, hunters killed 257 golden eagles in the decades between 1880 and 1900. The local authorities even paid a bounty of CHF 20 – around CHF 200 in today’s money – for each bird killed. It was a similar picture in other parts of Switzerland, as well as Germany, Austria, Italy and France. By 1900, golden eagle populations were at an all-time low and the species appeared destined to disappear altogether.
A safe haven for wildlife
Swiss attitudes toward native wildlife began to shift during the first decade of the 20th century, as people became increasingly concerned about the impact of industrialization and human population growth on the fragile ecosystems of the Alps. As early as 1904, the Swiss parliamentarian Fritz Ernst Bühlmann began lobbying for the creation of a large nature reserve in the mountains of eastern Switzerland. However, the first breakthrough did not come until five years later, when conservation pioneers Fritz and Paul Sarasin, Carl Schröter and Steivan Brunies leased the Cluozza Gorge in the canton of Grisons to create a 25.2-kilometer haven for wildlife. They founded the Swiss League for the Protection of Nature (today Pro Natura) to finance the project. In 1914, the Cluozza Gorge, together with large swaths of surrounding wilderness, became the Swiss National Park: one of the first of its kind in Europe. At last, the golden eagles had a space where they could be free from persecution.
Photo: Getty Images
Today, the Swiss national park covers 170.3 square kilometers of pristine alpine wilderness and forms part of the global UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Golden eagles are not only thriving within the park boundaries, but well beyond. The Swiss government made golden eagles a protected species in 1953, while the tireless conservation efforts of groups such as the Swiss Ornithological Institute and Pro Natura have done much to aid the recovery of populations. It is estimated that Switzerland is now home to around 350 pairs of golden eagles. In 2009, a brood was spotted in the Jura region of northwest Switzerland for the first time in more than 150 years.
A work in progress
The recovery of Swiss golden eagle populations is a conservation success story. However, the work is far from complete: “Fundamentally, golden eagles face very strong competition from their own species,” says Dr David Jenny, a golden eagle expert with the Swiss Ornithological Institute. “They are extremely territorial and must constantly protect their territories from incursions by other eagles.” The average territory of an eagle pair in the Alps extends between ten and one hundred square kilometers, and competition for space is fierce. “Eagle populations are at their upper limit, so it’s becoming more difficult for young birds to find areas that are not already occupied by other eagle pairs. This results in more conflicts between birds. In the canton of Grisons, more than sixty percent of dead eagles found are casualties of fights,” Dr Jenny explains. “This is an effect of natural regulation rather than a threat to the population.”
The popularity of the Swiss Alps as a tourism and leisure destination also means that eagles must contend with
the growing impact of human activity, as well as hazards like power lines and wind turbines. Moreover, the Swiss Ornithological Institute recently conducted research into worrying instances of lead poisoning among golden eagle populations. “We investigated the source of this lead and found that it was clearly coming from shot and munitions used in hunting. This gets into the food chain and poisons the eagles,” Dr Jenny says. “Since we published our findings, there has been a political drive to replace lead hunting munitions with lead-free alternatives. The process is not complete, but there is progress. In the canton of Grisons, around fifty percent of hunters have already switched to lead-free alternatives.” The Swiss Ornithological Institute remains actively committed to golden eagle research and conservation. In 2017, it began a project in cooperation with the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany. Twelve eaglets were fitted with miniature GPS trackers to research how young eagles disperse once they leave the nest. The project has already generated useful data and provided a valuable insight into the lives of these majestic birds. If you download an app called Animal Tracker, you will be able to track the locations of two Swiss eagles – M01-2017 (eobs 4570) and W01-2017 (eobs 5704) – on your smartphone.
Trainer Lucien Nigg working with Swiss golden eagle “Terzi” at the Greifvogelpark in Buchs, Switzerland.
The golden eagle
Adult golden eagles can have a wingspan of up to 2.2 meters, making them powerful and accomplished hunters. Their prey ranges from marmots and other small mammals, right up to baby deer and young chamois. Golden eagle pairs form a life-long bond, typically producing one or two eaglets during a breeding season. They nest high up on rugged cliffs or in tall trees, where they can raise their young beyond the reach of lesser predators and as close as possible to the place where they feel most at home – the sky.
The Swiss Ornithological Institute is currently seeking sponsorship to fund PHD research into golden eagles and to nurture new talent in this specialist field. All donations are gratefully received and will help improve our understanding of this fascinating species – and ensure that it continues to thrive for generations to come.
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