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Bald Eagle or Golden Eagle - A Guide to Eagle Identification

Golden Eagles can often be confused with Bald Eagles. This post will help you learn how to identify each of these mighty raptors! (If you need help with the adult Bald Eagle, you are going to need a different site.)

An immature Bald Eagle and an immature Golden Eagle are shown together for easy comparison.
An immature Bald Eagle and an immature Golden Eagle are shown together for easy comparison.

Eagle identification may not seem challenging if you are looking at adults, but those young birds can throw a new birdwatcher for a loup! Here, we focus on several keys to identifying Bald and Golden Eagles.


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Table of Contents:

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Golden Eagle & Bald Eagle in Flight

Eagles in flight can offer the most difficult challenge for eagle identification. Why? They are not sitting still! Birds in flight are more difficult to view, photograph, and note field marks. Here, I provide six quick tips for quick eagle identification. These eagle identification flight marks should be easily seen, and with enough experience, a single mark may be enough for a field ID.

Immature Golden Eagle (left) in flight, compared to an immature Bald Eagle (right) in flight.
Immature Golden Eagle (left) in flight compared to juvenile Bald Eagle (right) in flight.
  1. White Wrists - Immature Golden Eagles (GOEA) have extensive white at the base of the outer flight feathers or primaries (the wrist area). Bald Eagles (BAEA) usually have white on the upper underwing coverts. Look at #1 in the photo. The immature Golden Eagle has white restricted to the flight feathers (primaries) only, and the Bald Eagle does not have white at the base of the flight feathers. Mature Golden and Bald Eagles will not have white in the outer wing area.

  2. White Armpits - Immature Bald Eagles typically have white axillaries (armpits), and immature Golden Eagles have dark axillaries. Adult Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles do not have white armpits.

  3. White in the Tail - Immature Golden Eagles have white restricted to the base of the tail only. Immature Bald Eagles can have varying levels of white throughout the tail, but it usually is more extensive than the Golden Eagle. You will see a photo later in this post that shows a young Bald Eagle with white in the tail that could be confused with a Golden Eagle. Experience knowing the typical extent is beneficial in these situations. Adult Golden Eagles have dark tails, and adult Bald Eagles have all-white tail feathers.

  4. Wing Pinch - Golden Eagles typically have an obvious constriction point where the wings attach to the body. In the Bald Eagle, it is much less noticeable to not visible.

  5. Broad Wings - Bald Eagles typically show a broader wing than Golden Eagles. Golden Eagle wings appear to taper more than Bald Eagles.

  6. The Snoz - Bald Eagles have a large-headed appearance, and their bill is quite obvious. If you are a great distance from the bird, and the bill is visible, you are likely seeing a Bald Eagle. If you can see the snoz, call it a Bald.

 

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Now, take those six identification points and apply them to this photo!

Golden Eagle vs Bald Eagle
Which eagle is which? Use your 6 Quick Tips! (The answers are below!)

Eagle Quiz Answer

  • Left - Golden Eagle (Immature)

  • Right - Bald Eagle (Juvenile)


Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle ID: Perching

Here is a tip that can be used with great frequency: Bald Eagles typically have more extensive white on their bodies, heads, and tails at all ages than Golden Eagles. There are exceptions to this rule, but it usually will hold true! When dealing with immature and juvenile Golden Eagles vs Bald Eagles, the location of the white is also very important. Juvenile Bald Eagles will have white in their body and 'armpits' while juvenile Golden Eagles usually have white restricted to their wrists and the base of their tail.

Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle
Compare the amount of white, bill size, and head size of these two birds. Use the rules we applied above in the post. The Bald Eagle is on the left, and the Golden Eagle is on the right.

Bald Eagle vs Golden Eagle Bill and Head Comparison

a comparison of eagles heads
a comparison of eagles heads

Golden Eagles also have a smaller head appearance compared to the bulky Bald Eagle head. Photo saturation, exposure, and lighting can give Bald Eagles a false "golden feather" appearance.

 

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Eagle Quiz!

 

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Eagle Quiz Answers

  • Photo 1 - Bald Eagle

  • Photo 2 - Golden Eagle

  • Photo 3 - Bald Eagle

  • Photo 4 - Golden Eagles


Eagle Ranges

While not the most helpful tool in eagle identification, you can also use the ranges of these two eagles to aid in identification. However, do NOT rely solely upon range for these large soaring birds.


Bald Eagle Range

Bald Eagle Range Map
Bald Eagle Range Map

Golden Eagle Range

Golden Eagle Range Map
Golden Eagle Range Map

Final Thoughts on Eagle Identification

  • Do not depend on size for eagle identification.

  • Do not depend on habitat for eagle identification.

  • Use your 6 Quick Tips

  • Use the general rule: Bald Eagles typically have more extensive white on their bodies, heads, and tails at all ages than Golden Eagles.


Field Guides for Eagle Identification

If you are interested in learning more about raptor identification, here is our favorite raptor ID guide:


Improve your raptor ID skills with The Crossley ID Guide for Raptors.

Check out these other great raptor guides:



 

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