By Caitlin Kennedy
Val d’Isère was host to some captive Golden Eagles as part of a falconry display this week. We took the opportunity to celebrate the town’s emblem and take a deeper look at the majestic birds that keep watch from their lofty flight above us.
Bucking the trend in the animal kingdom, the females are bigger than the males with the boys weighing in at 2.5 to 4kg and the girls at up to 6.5kg. The wingspan of female golden eagles can be up to 2.5m.
They can have territories up to 200km2 in size. It can take juveniles 4 to 5 years to establish a new territory for themselves
Golden eagles have large eyes that take up most of the space of their heads. Their keen eyes can see clearly and in colour, allowing the bird to spot movement from up to a mile away. Their eyes don’t move much in the eye socket, but an eagle can rotate its head about 270 degrees, just like an owl, to look around. Golden eagles also have a clear eyelid that protects their precious eyes from dust and dirt.
The male often puts on an aerial exhibit as part of his courtship. He folds his wings and drops head-first until close to the ground, when he spreads his wings to soar aloft and repeat the action.
Golden eagle couples are monogamous and may mate for life. They often return to the same nest for several breeding seasons. Females lay between 1 and 4 eggs, and both parents incubate them for 40 to 45 days. The chicks, called eaglets, hatch in the order laid. The oldest chick often attacks and sometimes even kills its younger siblings.
The golden eagle is the most common national animal in the world, with five nations- Albania, Germany, Austria, Mexico and Kazakhstan—using its emblem. It also served as the model for the aquila, the most prominent symbol of the Roman legions, and unfortunately, the Nazis.
Most early-civilisations regarded the golden eagle with reverence. Only after the Industrial Revolution, when sport-hunting became widespread and commercial stock farming became common, did humans start to widely regard golden eagles as a threat to their livelihoods. This coincided with the introduction of the firearm allowing humans to start hunting the powerful birds.
In many ancient cultures, golden eagles were viewed as a link between terrestrial mankind and celestial deities. In Japanese tradition, the main representation of golden eagles in mythology is Tengu, a bipedal creature with a long beak, wings and a fan with 12 wooden ribs, resembling tail feathers. Mischievous and powerful, Tengu is the protector of the mountains, is able to foretell the future, creates winds and even attacks people who try to harm the mountainous landscape.
In Norse mythology, the golden eagle sits atop Yggdrasil, the great ash tree that runs through the universe. A squirrel, Ratsatosk, carries messages and insults between the eagle at the crown and a serpent gnawing at the tree roots. And in Greek mythology, it was the companion to Zeus, serving as his bearer of messages or omens.
Falconers have long prized the animals for their hunting abilities. In medieval Europe, their use was reserved for kings, hence why in French, they are still called l’Aigle Royal. To this day, hunting tribes in Kazakhstan still use Golden Eagles. And in a more modern twist, the French army has begun to train captive Golden Eagles to take out suspicious or hostile drones to combat terrorism.