As adult birds it can be quite easy to distinguish a golden eagle from a bald eagle. However, the difficulty arises when you see a juvenile bird that hasn’t fully developed its adult markings. This can take up to 5 years for both species.
As adults, bald eagles have a white head and golden eagles have a tan colored head. Plus, golden eagles also have more color in their plumage than bald eagles. Bald eagles also have a white tail.
Both golden eagles and bald eagles are similar in size. The males of each species measure around 2.5 feet from head to toe and they have a wingspan of 6 to 7 feet. Most adult male eagles weigh more than 10 pounds. Adult female eagles are larger, of course.
Let’s look at the characteristics of each species to help with identifying the differences between these two birds.
The Characteristics Of Golden Eagles
Mature golden eagles have a brown head with gold highlights on the neck and back of the head. The golden eagle’s head is smaller than that of the bald eagle and it has a black, hooked beak.
A golden eagle’s feathers are dark brown with some white feathers on their shoulders and tails. Unlike other eagles, these birds also have feathers on their legs. The golden eagle also has yellow feet and hazel or dark brown eyes.
Juvenile golden eagles also have dark brown plumage but they have white colored stripe or band at the base of their feathers and also at the base of the tail although this also has a dark terminal band.
However, their head coloring changes very little as they mature into adulthood.
The Characteristics Of Bald Eagles
When fully mature, bald eagles have a white head and a dark brown body. They also have a white tail. The bald eagle’s legs and eyes are yellow.
However, this coloring is not fully apparent until the bald eagle is around five years of age. As a juvenile, the bald eagle has a brown head and body with some white markings. These white markings are scattered throughout the feathers.
The bald eagle has a yellow beak that is hooked and quite large. It also has a large head. Plus, there are no feathers on the legs of the bald eagle.
As juvenile bald eagles mature, their plumage changes quite considerably. At one and half years, there is considerably more white scattered throughout the feathers on the head but especially around the throat. The beak also starts to lighten to gray.
At two and a half years, there is a lot more white on both the top of the head and around the throat. At this stage the head of the bird looks very speckled. Similarly, the beak is now a very light gray in color.
How You Can Tell The Difference Between Golden Eagles And Bald Eagles
If you see both an adult bald eagle and an adult golden eagle, it’s very easy to tell the difference just by looking at their coloring. The bald eagle has a white head and tail and the golden eagle’s are brown.
Additionally, the golden eagle has a smaller head and a longer tail than the bald eagle. The beak colorings are also different with the bald eagle having a yellow beak while the golden eagle has a black one. The bald eagle also appears to have a thicker neck than the golden eagle. This is probably due to the fact that bald eagles have larger heads.
Another distinct difference between the two species is that a golden eagle’s feathers go all the way down to its feet whereas a bald eagle has no feathers on its legs.
You’ll also notice a slight difference when both birds are in full flight with their wings spread out. The golden eagle’s wings will be upturned slightly and form a slight V shape. Conversely, the bald eagle flies with its wings flat and straight.
The Difference Between Juvenile Birds
As mentioned, a juvenile bald eagle can appear very similar to a juvenile golden eagle. Therefore, you have to look a little more carefully to spot the differences.
A juvenile golden eagle has a distinctive white band on its wings and tail. On the other hand, juvenile bald eagles have haphazard splashes of white on their feathers. This is easier to spot when both birds are in flight. An immature golden eagle will have a stripe or band of white at the base of the tail as well as a similar band on the underside of the wings. With a bald eagle, you’ll only see indistinct splashes of white. This gives the appearance of mottling.
You’ll also find that bald eagles have a broader wing while the wing of a golden eagle is more tapered. The beak on a bald eagle is also more pronounced than that of a golden eagle. Therefore, it you can clearly see the beak of an eagle soaring overhead, it’s most likely a bald eagle.
If you’re still not sure which bird you’re looking at, look at the legs. If the bird is a golden eagle, it will look like it’s wearing boots as the legs are covered with feathers. On the other hand, a bald eagle has bald legs and you can easily see the talons.
Differences In Nesting Sites And Feeding Preferences
Golden eagles primarily feed on small animals such as rabbits, hares and squirrels. They build their nests on mountain cliff sides, in escarpments and close to grasslands and forest areas.
Bald eagles tend to prefer nesting sites near lakes, rivers and streams. This is because they prefer to eat fish. However, bald eagles will also feast on small mammals as well as reptiles, crabs and other amphibians.
Golden eagles are also more solitary than bald eagles. Therefore, they’re more often seen alone or in pairs. Conversely, bald eagles can be seen in larger groups when there is an ample supply of food nearby.
|Golden Eagles vs Bald Eagles: The General Differences|
|Identifying Feature||Golden Eagle||Bald Eagle|
|Head coloring||Brown with gold highlights||White|
|Head size||Smaller head and beak||Larger elongated head with larger beak|
|Beak||Black and hooked||Yellow and hooked|
|Cere (the bare patch on the upper side of the bill at the base)||Bright yellow||Dark gray|
|Legs||Yellow with feathers||Yellow with no feathers|
|Tail||Dark brown with some lighter markings underneath||White|
|Habitat||North America, North Africa & Eurasia||North America|
|Preferred prey||Small mammals||Fish|
|Diving speed||Up to 200 miles per hour||Up to 100 miles per hour|
|Nesting sites||On cliffs near grasslands and forests||In tall trees near bodies of water|
Frequently Asked Questions
Which is bigger, a golden eagle or bald eagle?
Bald eagles are slightly larger when measuring height and wingspan. However, both species weigh about the same.
Do bald eagles ever mate with golden eagles?
There is no scientific evidence to say that a bald eagle has ever mated with a golden eagle.
Do eagles mate for life?
Why are golden eagles special?
The golden eagle is the largest bird of prey in north America. It is also the national bird of Mexico.
Telling the difference between an adult golden eagle and an adult bald eagle is quite simple. The bald eagle has a white head and tail while the golden eagle has a brown head and tail.
There are also differences in the size of their heads and beaks. The bald eagle has a larger head and a more pronounced hooked beak. Also, the bald eagle has a yellow beak while the golden eagle has a black one.
Another distinctive difference is that a golden eagle has feathers on its legs while a bald eagle does not. When in full flight, a golden eagles wings form a slight V shape while a bald eagle flies with its wings straight.
Telling the difference between a juvenile bald eagle and an immature golden eagle can be a little trickier. One of the clearest differences is the white markings on the underside of the tail and wings. A golden eagle has a distinct stripe or band of white while a bald eagle just has splatters of white.
So, next time you’re out eagle-spotting, see if you can use these characteristics to determine which species you’re looking at.