Juvenile Golden Eagle vs. Juvenile Bald Eagle: How to Tell the Difference

Juvenile Golden Eagle vs. Juvenile Bald Eagle: How to Tell theDifference

Eagles are majestic birds in general, and the Golden Eagle and Bald Eagle stand out within this species, as they have a lot in common. Both eagles are national birds: The Golden Eagle is Mexico’s national bird, while the Bald Eagle is the national bird of the U.S., adorning even the rug in the Oval Office of the White House.

These birds are easy to tell apart close-up, with the white head and tail of the adult Bald Eagle being distinctively white, and the Golden Eagle bearing a full body of primarily dark brown feathers. So why are juvenile Bald Eagles sometimes mistaken for adult Goldens, and why are they so frequently misidentified as juvenile Golden Eagles?

Even adult Golden and juvenile Bald Eagles can be difficult to differentiate, as they’re both raptors, and bear a close resemblance to each other. It’s tempting to hope that the bird you saw wasn’t a Bald Eagle, but its much rarer counterpart, a Golden Eagle, and rightfully so—juvenile Bald Eagles don’t have the easily identifiable white head yet, but instead sport the same brown feathers as do Golden Eagles. It’s only under closer scrutiny that it’s possible to tell one from the other.

Similarities Between the Birds

Golden Eagle

Both the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) and the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) are in the same family of raptors. Both are opportunistic feeders, which means they’ll not only eat prey that they’ve captured themselves, but they’ll also take advantage of a free meal in carrion.

Both birds usually appear to have black bodies from a distance, but up close, their plumage is actually dark brown. The two species in question are of a similar size, with males measuring about 2.5 feet (about 0.8 metres), head to toe.

Their wingspan is equally similar, boasting an impressive span of 6 to 7 feet (about 1.8 to 2.1 metres), with female Bald Eagles attaining up to 8 feet (about 2.4 metres) in wingspan, and each male or female weighs between 10 and 15 pounds (about 4.5 to 6.8 kilograms). Interestingly, the females, like many female raptors, are larger than the males.

Unlike their adult counterparts, the juveniles of these two species appear very similar, with both sporting the same dark plumage of an adult Golden Eagle, which contributes to the difficulty in discerning the difference between them.

Differences Between the Birds

Family and Regions

Golden Eagles are part of the Booted or True Eagles family of raptors. Their plumage is dark brown, with a golden sheen on the back of the head and neck, and faint banding on the tail. They have a black beak, brown eyes and feathered legs with yellow talons.

These particular eagles cover a much larger territory than Bald Eagles do, and they can be found throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere. They’re specifically found in prairie coulees, mountainous regions and other areas in which there are abundant updrafts.

Their territory includes most of western North America, as far north as Alaska, and they also appear in the eastern part of the continent, though they’re much less common in this area. Incredibly, they can also be found in Asia, Northern Africa and Europe.

Bald Eagles, on the other hand, are Sea Eagles. Their plumage is dark brown, with white plumage on the head, neck and tail, and they each have a yellow beak, eyes and talons. Their legs are bare of plumage.

As sea birds, their preferred prey is fish, and they’re therefore more common in inland areas along rivers and lakes. Their territory encompasses most of North America, including Canada, all of the continental United States and Northern Mexico.

The Plumage of Juveniles

Juvenile Bald Eagle

The adult plumage of both species doesn’t fully come in until each bird is about four to five years of age. Early on, juveniles look very similar, with their plumage remaining dark brown up until about one year of age.

At that point, the plumage of the juvenile Bald Eagle will begin to appear mottled with white feathers (largely on the belly), making them appear to be piebald, mocha-coloured or even cream-coloured from a distance. Golden Eagles, on the other hand, remain dark brown in colour, with each one developing some white feathers that are concentrated largely on the underside of their wings and tail.

At about the age of three to four years, Bald Eagles begin to develop a whitish face with a dark line through the eyes. Their face will resemble that of the Osprey at this age. In contrast, the Golden Eagle’s face will remain unchanged, maintaining its characteristic dark brown plumage.

At this age, the Bald Eagle will have a large beak, comprising about one-third of the size of the bird’s head. The Golden’s beak, while still sizeable, will be a size that’s more proportionate to its head, making this type of bird’s overall head profile appear to be much smaller. The Golden’s head profile will more closely resemble that of a Buteo Hawk at this age.

Perhaps the most obvious differentiating feature between these two juveniles is the fact that the Golden Eagle has fully plumed legs. This makes their legs appear to be much fuller than those of Bald Eagles—almost muscular. Bald Eagles have bare, yellow legs and talons, and while these are more easily observed close-up, if the bird is standing or carrying prey, these yellow body parts are still easy to spot from farther away.

If you’re unable to get a closer look, you may be able to deduce which bird you’re observing based on your location, as indicated in the Family and Regions section above. If you’ve spotted an eagle close to fish-filled waters (such as a river or lake) in a region that’s common to the Bald Eagle, it probably is a Bald Eagle.

Further Cues for Identifying Each Bird

Keeping in mind the migration patterns of both birds, these may also give a birdwatcher more hints as to which bird they’re observing. Goldens are rarely seen across the eastern regions of North America, except during migration in the fall, which occurs between October and December. At this point,  they may be observed at well-known tally points such as Hawk Mountain in the U.S state of Pennsylvania and Cape May in the state of New Jersey.

In the winter, both birds may be found in areas where waterfowl birds are concentrated. Bald Eagles are commonly found in Atlantic coastal marshes and swiftly running rivers, while small numbers of Goldens over-winter in the Southern Appalachians, where deer becomes their food of choice.

Once again, while juvenile Bald Eagles can easily be confused with the adult Golden Eagle, and the juveniles of both species appear to look the same until they reach a year of age, a good look at their legs is your first clue as to which bird you’ve spotted.

By using all available information on the size, the plumage colour, the migratory habits and the habitat of these birds, it’s possible to differentiate between the two. And, if you’re lucky enough to catch an Eagle with a fish in its talons or beak, it’s almost certain that the spectacular Eagle you’ve spotted is the infamous Bald Eagle!

Featured image: Pixabay; Image 1: Pixabay; Image 2: Pixabay