Soaring high along the border of its expansive territory, a golden eagle detects its neighbor in the distance. Though they have met countless times over the years, the bird begins a territorial display just to signal nothing has changed. The old boundaries are intact, and the residents are the same.
The display is spectacular. The eagle folds it wings and falls, but it doesn't drop far before reaching out with its wings, extending them to their full seven-foot span. Swooping up, it repeats the performance, sometimes tipping forward, sometimes falling backward in roller-coaster fashion six, seven, eight times. Satisfied that it has clearly announced claim to its territory, it soars on and continues its patrol.
This bit of drama did not take place in a distant corner of Eastern Oregon, where canyons are filled with sage and juniper. It did not transpire over the barren moors of the Scottish highlands. I happened to be standing in the parking lot of Costco in north Medford with the roar of traffic on Crater Lake Highway behind me.
I'm sure there were more than a few unspoken questions and concerns from the other shoppers regarding this peculiar person staring into the sky. I'm used to this.
Most residents of the region, including many birders, are unaware that Jackson County is home to more than a half-dozen pairs of golden eagles. It would seem that a bird as big as an eagle would be hard to miss, but most spend their time in the foothills and along the ridges, well above the neighborhoods and businesses in the valley. Not all live in remote locations, but with home ranges that cover 50 square miles or so, they are thinly spread, and it is noteworthy when you see one.
Sometimes when a bird visits the more populated areas, it can be exciting. A number of years ago, one preyed upon on a duck taken from the pond in Lithia Park in downtown Ashland. Feathers were everywhere as it plucked its prey on the lawn, much to the horror of some of the park patrons. Just a little take-out.
Their diet is varied. Their most common prey are rabbits and squirrels, but almost any animal about this size is fair game. I once flushed a bird from its meal of gray fox in the Applegate. When the opportunity presents itself, they will even dine on a meal of raven, red-tailed hawk or great horned owl. This accounts for the regular and spirited harassment of eagles by hawks and ravens. The owls are not so bold. Mobbing by hawks and ravens may explain, in part, their infrequent visits to the lower elevations. Redtails and, to some extent, ravens are more common along the valley floor.
Your best opportunity to encounter a golden eagle is to keep a sharp eye along the horizon as you travel the roads leading into and out of the valley, especially along highways 140 and 66. You might even want to sneak a peek into the sky the next time you go shopping. You never know.
Stewart Janes is a Biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.