How to Tell a Juvenile Golden Eagle from a Juvenile Bald Eagle

How to Tell a Juvenile Golden Eagle from a Juvenile Bald Eagle
Adult Golden Eagle and Bald Eagle

The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) and the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) are among the largest and most emblematic North American raptors. Both eagles are the national bird of Mexico and the United States of America, respectively.

Golden and bald eagles have relatively easy-to-distinguish plumages. The uniform dark brown plumage of a large raptor identifies it as an adult golden eagle. Even easier to recognize is the dark brown body with the white head and tail of the adult bald eagle.

However, both eagles’ juvenile and immature plumages are similar, which causes some confusion.

Both eagle species take four and a half to five years to acquire adult plumage. The golden eagle goes through relatively similar plumages before reaching the adult plumage. In contrast, the bald Eagle goes through several different plumages before acquiring the familiar adult plumage.

This article lists similarities and differences between juvenile and immature golden and bald eagles. Familiarizing yourself with these young eagles’ appearance should enable you to quickly tell them apart and positively identify them the next time you see one. 

Juvenile and immature eagles

The term juvenile refers to an eagle (or any bird) in its first plumage, or the plumage eaglets leave the nest with. The juvenile plumage is worn for less than a year before the eaglet starts replacing it for the first of several immature or subadult plumages.

An immature, also known as a subadult eagle, is a bird older than a year that no longer wears a juvenile plumage.

Male and female eagles

Female eagles are larger than males. Other than the size difference, there is no discernible difference in plumage between sexes as a juvenile, immature, and adult birds.

Golden and bald eagles have different patterns of head plumage as they develop

The head of a juvenile and immature golden eagle is similar to that of a juvenile bald eagle. The golden eagle’s head appearance experience minor changes between the juvenile and immature stages.

On the other hand, a juvenile bald eagle experiences dramatic changes in plumage, beak, and eye colors starting at the beginning of the second year after fledging.

Juvenile bald eagles wear their juvenile plumage for about six months after leaving the nest.

Juvenile Golden Eagle

  • The head is dark brown with a noticeable golden nape. The head color goes through little changes from juvenile through immature plumages.
  • The gape and base of the beak are orange-yellow.
  • The beak is dark and stays dark.
  • It has a bright yellow cere.
  • Eye color remains dark brown.

Juvenile and immature Bald Eagles

  • The head is dark brown for only about six months year after fledging.
  • The gape is yellow but less bright.
  • The beak is dark for about one year. Then it begins to turn progressively.
  • The cere is not discernible from the rest of the culmen or upper mandible.
  • The dark brown eyes of a juvenile begin to change color during the second year.

Feathered versus bare legs

The golden eagle is one of the three North American raptors that have feathered legs. The others are Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) and Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus). Bald eagles do not have feathered legs.

The purpose of having feathered legs is not clear. Some suggest that feathers on the legs protect them from cold temperatures. Others suggest that it is a layer of protection from biting and scratching prey. Bald eagles feed largely on fish and may not need protection on the legs.

Golden Eagle

  • The legs are covered with feathers down to the feet. 

Bald Eagle

  • The legs are bare.

Eagle measurements (Size)

Golden and bald eagles are similar in size. In both species, females can be up to 25 percent larger than males. Overall length, wingspan, and weight differences are so small between both species that these metrics offer little help to separate juvenile and immature bald and golden eagles. 

In the field, particularly when perched, bald eagles may look slightly larger, while golden eagles look longer and slender. 

Golden EagleBald Eagle
Length30”31”
Wingspan71 – 92” in   (Average 81.5”)71 – 91” (Average 81”)
Weight10 lb9.5 lb

Length: is the distance between a bird’s tip of the tail and the tip of the beak.
Wingspan: Is the distance between a bird’s wingtips while spread.

Perched golden and bald eagle 

Perched juvenile and immature golden and bald eagles may look confusing, but a closer look reveals differences in tail, breast, and belly colors.

juvenile golden eagle

Golden Eagle 

  • The tail is white in the base with a broad black terminal band.
  • The breast and belly are uniformly dark brown.
  • The back and folded wings are dark brown except for some white mottling in some individuals.
  • The head looks proportionally smaller.

Bald Eagle

  • The tail color is variable. It can be dark with some white mottling or rather pale with brown streaks, but never a well-defined bicolored tail.
  • The breast and belly are brown with a variable amount of uneven white mottling.
  • The back is dark brown, also with a variable amount of white mottling.
  • The head looks proportionally larger.

Plumage differences in soaring golden eagle and bald Eagle

Golden Eagle

  • The wings’ underside shows well-defined white patches that vary in size on each individual. The wing patches get smaller as the bird approaches the adult age.
  • The breast and belly are uniformly dark brown. The base of the tail, seen from below, is white with a conspicuous black terminal band.
  • The white base of the tail gets darker as the bird reaches the age of maturity.
  • The lower back and upper side of the tail are white, seen when the bird tilts over while soaring.

Bald Eagle

  • The wing’s underside is dark with white mottling in juvenile birds but increases during the immature stages. The amount of white mottling is highly variable among individuals.
  • The breast and belly have as much mottling as the wings’ underside.
  • The tail color pattern is generally similar to the breast and belly.
  • In general, juvenile eagles are the darkest brown. They acquire a variable amount of white mottling as immature and revert to the pure dark brown of the adult.
juvenile balde eagle
Golden Eagle and Bald Eagles in flight.

Using habitat to identify golden and bald eagles

How to Tell a Juvenile Golden Eagle from a Juvenile Bald Eagle
Typical habitat used by the Golden Eagle (left) and Bald Eagle (right).

Golden Eagle

The golden eagle is mostly restricted to open and mountainous areas west of the Mississippi River, though it is rare throughout the East and Southeast of the United States.

Bald Eagle

The bald eagle is widespread and mostly associated with bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, dams, or any other type that contains fish.

Golden and bald eagle range

The golden eagle is a bird from the western U.S. However, it is thinly widespread and rare throughout North America. 

The bald eagle has strongholds in eastern coastal states, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska. But it is also widespread and associates with bodies of water that contain plenty of fish. In some regions, both eagles can be found side by side at carcasses. 

Related: Get to know A Bald Eagle Nest.

Eagle behavior

Despite having similar hooked bills and powerful talons, the golden and bald eagle are not closely related and do very different things to obtain their food. Both eagles can be opportunistic and will eat carrion when it is available.

Golden Eagle

The golden eagle is more closely related to hawks and is more of a pursue hunter of rabbits and other small mammals. Golden eagles are seen alone or in pairs; they do not form large concentrations around sources of food.

Bald Eagle

The bald eagle belongs to the group of fish-eating eagles and feeds mostly on fish and, to a lesser extent, on small waterfowl. The bald eagle can be seen alone, in pairs, or in large concentrations around sources of food.

Final Remarks

During the early 1970s, seeing a bald eagle was a rare event. The bald eagle was on the brink of extinction due to DDT’s widespread use.  The golden eagle was not as affected by DDT because its prey base feeds on grass and was not affected by DDT.

On what is now a successful conservation story, the bald eagle is regaining its former population numbers and continues to recover to the point that it is now fairly common in certain areas.

The bald and golden eagles are unlikely to be seen together in their respective habitats, which should be a good starting point in telling juvenile golden and bald eagles apart. Both species are more likely to be seen together at carcasses.

The next time you see a dark brown eagle, begin by picking on tail coloration patterns and the extent of white mottling on the body. Other differences are noticeable at close range. Pick one or two field marks to quickly and confidently tell apart a juvenile or immature golden eagle from a juvenile or immature bald eagle.

Identifying eagles with confidence will help you make accurate lists and reports of your sightings.

Photo Credits:

Andy Morffew, Juvenile bald eagle/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0
Jerry MacFarland, Juvenile bald eagle/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0
Rick Leche, Juvenile bald eagle/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0
Orel Skalni, Adult golden eagle/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0
Imhan Shah, Adult golden eagle/Wikipedia/CC by-SA 2.0
Dick Daniels, Juvenile golden eagle/Wikipedia/CC by-SA 2.0
Jon Nelson, Juvenile golden eagle/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0
Matt Knoth, Juvenile golden eagle/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0

References:

  • Buehler, D. A. (2000). Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.
  • Kochert, M. N., K. Steenhof, C. L. McIntyre, and E. H. Craig (2002). Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

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