Mosaics from the heritage of ELTE – 2023 May

Object of the month – Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) at the Biological and Paleontological Exhibition of the ELTE Natural History Museum

The Golden Eagle, scientifically known as Haliaeetus albicilla, is the largest predatory bird in Europe, second only to vultures. Female birds reach a height of almost one meter, while males are about 15 percent smaller. Their wingspan is equally impressive, varying from 180 to 245 centimeters depending on age and gender.

After five years, mature Golden Eagles have yellowish-brown plumage on their head and neck, with a short, white, and wedge-shaped tail. The beak changes to a straw-yellow color, and the iris becomes yellow as well. Young eagles have the same coloration as the rest of their body, with darker beaks. They can mate before their plumage changes in the aforementioned manner, as they may reach sexual maturity as early as the third year.

From a phylogenetic perspective, the Golden Eagle is not closely related to the birds commonly referred to as "eagles" in everyday language. A prominent distinguishing feature is that eagles' legs are feathered down to their toes, while the Golden Eagle's legs are bare. Phylogenetically, the Golden Eagle is more similar to kites than eagles.

The Golden Eagle mainly feeds on fish and waterfowl, but it can also consume any available animal in the winter, including rabbits. It does not reject carrion or offal left by hunters. Breeding season begins before the leaves sprout, and the bird is highly sensitive to disturbances during this time. The Golden eagle builds its nest on the upper part of high trees' canopies. Typically, it lays two eggs, and the chicks hatch in March–April, fledging in June.

The Golden Eagle's habitat is always near water, found in coastal areas across much of Europe, as well as sporadically in the Carpathian Basin. It used to be a characteristic bird of our former extensive wetlands, as evidenced in myths that have survived from the early period following the Hungarian conquest.

In Hungary, the Golden Eagle typically nests in trees in floodplain forests, but the gradual deforestation of these areas caused a severe population decline by the 1970s. At one point, only 12 pairs nested in the country. However, decades of persistent conservation efforts have led to a population recovery, with over 800 individuals currently living in Hungary. The Golden Eagle is a strictly protected species in Hungary, with an estimated one million Hungarian Forints in terms of its conservation value.

In our collection are adult and juvenile Golden Eagle specimens from the 1930s.


Written by: Julia Katalin Török, Ph.D., habil.

Assistant Professor, Department of Systematic Zoology and Ecology of Eötvös Loránd University

Source/author of illustration:
ELTE Natural History Museum