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Birds Guide


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White-tailed Eagle in flight
White-tailed Eagle in flight
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Accipitridae
Several, see below.

Eagles are large birds of prey which inhabit mainly the Old World, with only two species (Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle) commonly found in North America, a few in South America, the (White-bellied Sea Eagle, Wedge-tailed Eagle) in Australia and the Philippine Eagle in the Philippine Archipelago. They are members of the bird order Falconiformes (or Accipitriformes, according to alternative classification schemes), family Accipitridae and belong to several genera which are not necessarily closely related to each other.

Eagles are differentiated from other broad-winged birds of prey mainly by their larger size, more powerful build, and heavier head and bill. Even the smallest eagles, like the Booted Eagle, which is comparable in size to a Common Buzzard or Red-tailed Hawk has relatively longer and more evenly broad wings, and more direct, faster flight. Most eagles are larger than any other raptors apart from the vultures.

In Britain before 1678, Eagle referred specifically to the Golden Eagle, the other native species, the White-tailed Eagle, being known as the Erne. The modern name "Golden Eagle" for Aquila chrysaetos was introduced by the naturalist John Ray.

Like all birds of prey, eagles have very large powerful hooked beaks for tearing flesh from their prey, strong legs, and powerful talons. They also have extremely keen eyesight to enable them to spot potential prey from a very long distance. This keen eyesight is primarily contributed by their extremely large pupils which cause minimal diffraction (spreading) of the incoming light.

Eagles build their nest in tall trees or on high cliffs. Their nests, which are sometimes called eyries, can grow to 10 feet in diameter and weigh as much as 2000 pounds.

Eagles are sometimes used in falconry. They appear prominently in myth and literature. In the Old World, such references are commonly to the Golden Eagle (or possibly closely related species found in warm climates).

Thermographic image of an eagle, thermoregulating using his wings
Thermographic image of an eagle, thermoregulating using his wings


For many years there has been some scientific debate as to whether the Accipitriformes are a separate order, or belong to the Falconiformes.

Major new research into eagle taxonomy suggests that the important genera Aquila and Hieraaetus are not composed of nearest relatives, and it is likely that a reclassification of these genera will soon take place, with some species being moved to Lophaetus or Ictinaetus.

  • Bonelli's Eagle, Booted Eagle and African Hawk-eagle have been moved from Hieraaetus to Aquila.
    Greater Spotted Eagle, Aquila clanga and Lesser Spotted Eagle, Aquila pomarina should be moved either to join Long-crested Eagle, Lophaetus occipitalis or, perhaps better, all three of these species should move to Ictinaetus with the Black Eagle, Ictinaetus malayensis.
    Steppe Eagles and Tawny Eagles, once thought to be conspecific, are shown not even to be each other's nearest relatives.



  • Subfamily Buteoninae - hawks (buzzards), true eagles and sea-eagles
    • Genus Geranoaetus
      • Black-chested Buzzard-eagle, Geranoaetus melanoleucus
    • Genus Harpyhaliaetus
      • Crowned Solitary Eagle, Harpyhaliaetus coronatus
        Solitary Eagle, Harpyhaliaetus solitarius
    • Genus Morphnus
      • Crested Eagle, Morphnus guianensis
The powerful Harpy Eagle can easily grab a monkey weighing 5 kg and fly away with it.
The powerful Harpy Eagle can easily grab a monkey weighing 5 kg and fly away with it.
    • Genus Harpia
      • Harpy Eagle, Harpia harpyja
    • Genus Pithecophaga
      • Philippine Eagle, Pithecophaga jefferyi
    • Genus Harpyopsis
      • New Guinea Eagle, Harpyopsis novaeguineae
    • Genus Oroaetus
      • Black-and-chestnut Eagle, Oroaetus isidori
    • Genus Spizastur
      • Black-and-white Hawk-eagle, Spizastur melanoleucus
    • Genus Spizaetus
      • Cassin's Hawk-eagle, Spizaetus africanus
        Changeable Hawk-eagle, Spizaetus cirrhatus
        Mountain Hawk-eagle, Spizaetus nipalensis
        Blyth's Hawk-eagle, Spizaetus alboniger
        Javan Hawk-eagle, Spizaetus bartelsi
        Sulawesi Hawk-eagle, Spizaetus lanceolatus
        Philippine Hawk-eagle, Spizaetus philippensis
        Wallace's Hawk-eagle, Spizaetus nanus
        Black Hawk-eagle, Spizaetus tyrannus
        Ornate Hawk-eagle, Spizaetus ornatus
    • Genus Lophaetus
      • Long-crested Eagle, Lophaetus occipitalis - possibly belongs into Ictinaetus
    • Genus Stephanoaetus
      • Crowned Hawk-eagle, Stephanoaetus coronatus
    • Genus Polemaetus
      • Martial Eagle, Polemaetus bellicosus
    • Genus Hieraaetus
      • Little Eagle, Hieraaetus morphnoides
        Ayres' Hawk-eagle, Hieraaetus ayresii
        Rufous-bellied Hawk-eagle, Hieraaetus kienerii
A Golden Eagle in Lahore Zoo.
A Golden Eagle in Lahore Zoo.
  • Genus Aquila
      • Bonelli's Eagle, Aquila fasciata - formerly Hieraaetus fasciatus
        Booted Eagle, Aquila pennata - formerly Hieraaetus pennatus
        African Hawk-eagle, Aquila spilogastra - formerly Hieraaetus spilogaster
        Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos
        Eastern Imperial Eagle, Aquila heliaca
        Spanish Imperial Eagle Aquila adalberti
        Steppe Eagle, Aquila nipalensis
        Tawny Eagle, Aquila rapax
        Greater Spotted Eagle, Aquila clanga - to be moved to Lophaetus or Ictinaetus
        Lesser Spotted Eagle, Aquila pomarina - to be moved to Lophaetus or Ictinaetus
        Verreaux's Eagle, Aquila verreauxii
        Gurney's Eagle, Aquila gurneyi
        Wahlberg's Eagle, Aquila wahlbergi
        Wedge-tailed Eagle, Aquila audax
    • Genus Ictinaetus
      • Black Eagle, Ictinaetus malayensis
    • Genus Haliaeetus
      • White-tailed Eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla
        Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus
        Steller's Sea-eagle, Haliaeetus pelagicus
        African Fish-eagle, Haliaeetus vocifer
        White-bellied Sea-eagle, Haliaeetus leucogaster
        Sanford's Fish-eagle, Haliaeetus sanfordi
        Madagascar Fish-eagle, Haliaeetus vociferoides
        Pallas' Sea-eagle, Haliaeetus leucoryphus
    • Genus Ichthyophaga
      • Lesser Fish-eagle, Ichthyophaga humilis
        Grey-headed Fish-eagle, Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus
A dark individual of the Short-toed Eagle.
A dark individual of the Short-toed Eagle.
  • Subfamily Circaetinae: snake-eagles
    • Genus Terathopius
      • Bateleur, Terathopius ecaudatus
    • Genus Circaetus
      • Short-toed Eagle, Circaetus gallicus
        Black-chested Snake-eagle, Circaetus pectoralis
        Brown Snake-eagle, Circaetus cinereus
        Fasciated Snake-eagle, Circaetus fasciolatus
        Banded Snake-eagle, Circaetus cinerascens
    • Genus Spilornis
      • Crested Serpent-eagle, Spilornis cheela
        Nicobar Serpent-eagle, Spilornis minimus
        Mountain Serpent-eagle,Spilornis kinabaluensis
        Sulawesi Serpent-eagle, Spilornis rufipectus
        Philippine Serpent-eagle, Spilornis holospilus
        Andaman Serpent-eagle, Spilornis elgini
    • Genus Eutriorchis
      • Madagascar Serpent-eagle, Eutriorchis astur

Eagles in culture

Eagles as national symbols

Coat of arms of the town of Berg en Terblijt in the Netherlands, an example of the prolific use of the eagle in European heraldry.
Coat of arms of the town of Berg en Terblijt in the Netherlands, an example of the prolific use of the eagle in European heraldry.

The eagle has been used by many nations as a national symbol, depicting power, beauty and independence.

  • Ancient Egypt. The Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt used it as their seal
  • Arabic world. Many Arabic states and organisations use eagles as symbols, e.g. the PLO.
Napoleonic eagle
Napoleonic eagle
  • Czech Republic. The Czech Republic integrates three historical parts: Bohemia (with a double tailed lion in the emblem), Moravia and Silesia (both with eagle females in emblems - red-and-white chequered and black).
  • First French Empire. Napoleon Bonaparte recovered the Roman golden eagle as the symbol of his new French empire.
  • Mexico. The bird on the Mexican coat of arms and flag is a Golden Eagle.
  • Moldova. An eagle is part of the coat of arms and flag of Moldova.
  • The Philippines. The endangered Philippine Eagle is the national bird of the Philippines.
  • Poland. A white eagle on a red field is the coat of arms of Poland.
  • Romania. The eagle is also part of the coat of arms of Romania
  • Rome. The Romans used it on the standards of their armies. From this derives:
    • The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) at Constantinople chose a two-headed golden eagle as its symbol. One head symbolised ancient Rome, and the other head symbolised "new Rome" at Constantinople. From this derives:
      • Albania. The two-headed eagle is the emblem of "Shqipėria" or Land of the Eagles, which is known in English as Albania
      • Russian Empire. After the fall of Constantinople, the Russian Empire took the two-headed eagle as its own symbol.
    • Charlemagne and Holy Roman Empire. After his crowning as the new Roman Emperor, Charlemagne adopted the ancient Roman eagle as his own symbol. The Holy Roman Empire born of his kingdom took the eagle, but the Habsburgs replaced the golden eagle by an imperial eagle. From this derives:
      • Austria. The Austrian Empire had a two-headed eagle as its symbol. After the abolition of Austria-Hungary, Austria took as its symbol a one-headed eagle in the modern coat of arms of Austria.
      • Germany and Prussia. Prussia, and later Germany have used a black eagle as their national symbol.
      • Spain. The "Catholic Kings", Isabella and Ferdinand, used the Golden Eagle as a part of the royal shield. The eagle was on the Spanish shield until 1978.
  • Serbia/Montenegro. The Two-headed eagle is the emblem of Serbia, Montenegro, and Serbia and Montenegro.
  • Seljuk Turks and Ottoman Turks used a double-headed eagle as coats-of-arms.
  • USA. The United States has adopted the North American Bald Eagle as its national emblem. Although the Golden Eagle is found in North America, U.S. references to an unspecified "eagle" are often to the Bald Eagle; this point was not realized by an American coin die engraver, who, told to depict "an eagle", depicted a Golden Eagle; this error is the cause of the expression "illegal eagle".

Eagles as religious objects

In Jewish tradition the eagle is a symbol of true greatness, and the nation's greatest leaders such as the great sage of the Middle Ages Maimonides and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the modern day leader of world Jewry have been referred to by their peers and students as "The Great Eagle". The Torah compares G-d Himself to an eagle in Deuteronomy, 32.11-12. "As an eagle awakens its nest, hovering over its fledglings, it spreads its wings, taking them and carrying them on its pinions. [So] the Lord guided them [the Israelites] alone, and there was no alien deity with Him."

The eagle is a sacred bird in some cultures and the feathers of the eagle are central to many religious and spiritual customs, especially amongst Native Americans. Native Americans revere eagles as sacred religious objects and the feathers and parts of Bald and Golden Eagles are often compared to the Bible and crucifix. Eagle feathers are often used in various ceremonies and are used to honor noteworthy achievements and qualities such as exceptional leadership and bravery.

Despite modern and historic Native American practices of giving eagle feathers to non-Native Americans and Native American members of other tribes who have been deemed worthy, current United States eagle feather law stipulates that only individuals of certifiable Native American ancestry enrolled in a federally-recognized tribe are legally authorized to obtain eagle feathers for religious or spiritual use.

Eagles as organizational symbols

  • USA. Eagles are a common motif for American companies and organizations seeking association with a national identity. A few examples are the United States Postal Service, the Constitution Party, and the name of the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America.
  • Portugal. Eagle is the symbol of the Portuguese football team Sport Lisboa e Benfica.


  • Splitting headaches? Recent taxonomic changes affecting the British and Western Palaearctic lists - Martin Collinson, British Birds vol 99 (June 2006), 306-323
  • Bruguier, Leonard.A Warrior's Eagle Feather

External links

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