Bald Eagle vs Golden Eagle: How to Tell Golden Eagles from Bald Eagles

Two of the most well-known and famous raptors in the world are the Bald Eagle and the Golden Eagle. Synonymous with freedom, hunting, fierce protection, and the vast wilderness, it only makes sense why these eagles are so intimidating to humans. Problem is – they are constantly misidentified. 

Here are all the facts you need to know about how to identify a Bald Eagle and a Golden Eagle!

Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles – the bird science bit

While the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle are a part of the same family (Accipitridae), they are in separate genera.

Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos
The aquila genus of birds are regarded as true eagles. However, there is no real definition of what is an eagle. They are the largest birds of prey that can hunt, kill and eat a 1/2 meter sized mammal.

Bald EagleHaliaeetus leucocephalus
The haliaeetus genus of birds are fish eagles and these birds are more closely related to kites than the true eagles. Their ancestors date back over 30 million years.

What Is A Bald Eagle?

Photo by Saffron Blaze

Bald Eagles are most famously known as the national bird of the United States of America. They are very large raptors with a wingspan of over 2 meters. Adult birds have dark brown feathers on the body with a distinctive white head, tail and bright yellow bill, eyes and legs.

Bald Eagles are found across North America, Canada and into Mexico. They have a complex migration pattern but breed all through continental America and Canada. They are most commonly found near large bodies of water such as lakes, dams, and rivers that are surrounded by tall trees. The trees are essential for a Bald Eagle, but this is where they perch to look down at their prey before swooping down. They are fish eagles and that is what they predominately eat.

Interestingly, Bald Eagles had almost entirely disappeared from the eastern part of the United States due to hunting and deforestation. However, as a result of conservation efforts and the protection of the species, the Bald Eagle now comfortably inhabits its original range, including the east, without threat of extinction. 

As their most popular habitat is near open water, Bald Eagles primarily eat fish and other animals that go in the water such as ducks and waterfowl. Being opportunistic feeders means that Bald Eagles will also steal the food from other animals and birds, and they will also scavenge food such as carrion. 

What Is A Golden Eagle?

Photo by Richard Bartz

Golden Eagles are the most widely distributed eagle species in the world, found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. There are six subspecies that differ in size, plumage, and location. Generally, it is a dark bird with brown feathers, again with a wingspan of 2 meters and over. The tips of the wings and tails are darker, looking almost black. The ‘golden’ bit is on the nape of the neck and is not usually seen.

Golden Eagles are found in open areas such as mountains and cliffsides away from the shore, but also in forests. The adaptability of Golden Eagles is possibly due to deforestation, particularly in Europe, wherein they’ve had to adapt to new habitats away from dense woodlands. An example of this is the Golden Eagles who live in the north of Africa – specifically the sub-coastal strip between Morocco and Tunisia – wherein they have adapted to live and hunt in deserts and dry mountains. 

In the U.S. these birds are very mobile and migrate again, in a complex manner as shown in the distribution map below.

Golden Eagles are terrestrial predators, which means they only hunt animals that are found on land. They feast on rodents, reptiles, small mountain goats, baby bears, birds, foxes, deer, ground squirrels, and virtually anything that crosses its path. These eagles are also known to kill other birds of prey such as northern goshawks, buteo hawks, and falcons. 

Facts about the differences between the Bald and Golden Eagle

There’s actually quite a few significant physical differences between Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles. Problem is, these differences aren’t always easy to spot when the eagles are flying or perched far away. 

Photo by Andy Morffew
  • In terms of their size, the Bald Eagle’s wingspan is between 5’11”-7’7”, an average length of 2’7”, and weigh between 3-6.3 kg. 
  • The Golden Eagle’s wingspan ranges from 5’11”-7’8”, the average length is 26-40”, and the average weight is 4-6.3 kg.
  • Bald Eagles have a far bulkier and elongated head with the Golden Eagle head shape being more elegant.
  • Their beaks, similarly, are larger and more obvious to spot than a Golden Eagle due to the pointed hook, which is most likely designed to tear into fish and shellfish. 
Photo by Jarkko Jarvinen
  • The main difference between these eagles when in flight is that the Bald Eagle generally has broader wings than the Golden Eagle, whose wings seem to taper off at the end into a near point. Bald Eagles are known for gently flapping their wings as they fly, whereas the Golden Eagle tends to glide through the air with minimal wing movement. 
Photo by Peter K. Burian
  • Golden Eagles are faster than Bald Eagles, reaching speeds of 200 mph (whereas the Bald Eagle reaches speeds of 100 mph). This impressive speed is what makes the Golden Eagle the second-fastest bird in the world after the Peregrine Falcon. 
Photo by Martin Mecnarowski

Similarities in breeding

Both Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles are monogamous species that will generally mate for life with one partner (unless in the situation where one eagle dies). In fact, the reproductive behavior of both species is fairly similar to each other.

The male will generally perform an aerial display as a courtship ritual, which often includes the male dropping a stone and catching it again mid-flight to impress the female. 

When successful, the male and female eagle will copulate. Both female Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles will lay a clutch of 2 eggs, give or take one egg depending on the season and success of the breeding. As with most birds of prey, the female will be responsible for incubating the chicks while the male hunts for food and protects the nest. 

It’s very rare for the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle chicks to have predators due to the ferocious territorial protection from the parents – not to mention the location of the nests. Their only main predator is their sibling. Eagles, particularly Bald Eagles, are aggressive by nature, so nothing will stop the eldest chick from fighting and potentially killing the other. 

Photo by U.S. Army


So, there you have it! Contrary to popular belief, there are countless differences between Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles.

While the range of both species often overlaps, it’s very rare to see a Bald Eagle in the same area as a Golden Eagle. This is because both species are highly territorial and need a lot of space. They are also mostly solitary birds of prey, meaning they are likely to be aggressive with other eagle species. Hence, they stay out of each other’s way.

We hope you enjoyed our descriptions and facts about these incredible animals and that identification of them will now be easier.

Photo by Juan Lacruz

Related Questions

What is the lifespan of these birds?

The lifespan of both types of eagle is between 20 and 30 years.

Is the Bald Eagle stronger than the Golden?

The Golden Eagle is the strongest. They need more crushing power because they hunt large mammals rather than fish.

Do the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle fight?

They tend to be solitary creatures, so the eagles live far apart. Then they have different territories so it is unlikely to see Golden and Bald Eagles in the same place, let alone engaging with each other.