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.
While the bald eagle and golden eagle are a part of the same family (Accipitridae), both birds are separate species in their own right.
However, not everyone knows the differences between them. If you put two pictures together, you might notice some physical differences, but it’s not all that easy to identify the species. This is especially true if you’re trying to identify an eagle that is soaring through the skies.
Here is everything you need to know about how to identify a bald eagle and a golden eagle!
What Is A Bald Eagle?
First things first, let’s take a look at what each eagles species is.
Bald eagles are a bird of prey native to and found across North America. These birds are a type of sea eagle (in the Haliaeetus genus), which is why they are predominantly found near areas of vast open water and forests to provide a comfortable habitat and an abundance of food.
Bald eagles are most famously known as the national bird of the United States of America.
What Is A Golden Eagle?
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. While widely distributed, these birds don’t live in populated habitats due to the disruption of humans. Instead, they hunt in vast open areas such as mountainous regions.
Physical Differences Between A Bald Eagle And A 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.
Bald eagles are the most distinctive due to their dark brown feathered bodies contrasting with their white heads and necks, giving the impression of baldness (hence the name). Speaking of which, the name was inspired by the Middle English word “balde”, meaning white.
Their tails are also white to match their heads. Their body is starkly contrasted to the bright yellow legs, feet, beaks, and eyes. When in flight, the underwings are often marked with light-brown flecks, which is why people often mistake a bald eagle for a golden eagle when viewing it from afar.
In terms of their size, bald eagles have a wingspan of between 5’11”-7’7”, an average length of 2’7”, and weigh between 3-6.3 kg.
Golden eagles, unlike bald eagles, are predominantly brown all over. Up close, their feathers vary in brown shades, ranging from light to dark sporadically, making the bird look rugged. When in flight, you might see white patches at the base of their underwings.
Golden eagles also exhibit rich brown eyes (unlike the bright amber ones of a bald eagle), a black bill often with yellow nostrils, and yellow feet. It’s not easy to see the color of the golden eagle’s legs as they are generally covered in brown feathers – especially the eagles who live in colder regions like Northern Europe.
The wingspan of golden eagles ranges from 5’11”-7’8”, the average length is 26-40”, and the average weight is 4-6.3 kg. As both the golden eagle and bald eagle share similar size dimensions, it makes sense why it’s often hard to identify the species when they aren’t close to the ground.
Another key physical difference between the species is the head sizes. Bald eagles have a far bulkier and elongated head than golden eagles, with the head shape of a bald eagle looking something like a permanent frown.
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.
Considering most people see bald eagles and golden eagles when they are flying, let’s take a look at the key differences between their flight styles. That’s right – you can identify both species by looking at the shape of their wings and the way they fly.
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.
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.
Range Distribution Identification
Interestingly, the range of the bald eagle and golden eagle often overlaps, which is why people often have a hard time distinguishing the two. However, the golden eagle is the most widely distributed eagle, with a range spanning across the Northern Hemisphere. The bald eagle, however, is only found in North America.
The bald eagle’s range is distributed primarily in Canada and Alaska, traveling all the way down to north Mexico. These birds are less frequently found in central North American states that are limited to areas of open water, but they will often reside in national forests with exposure to large lakes, damns, or marshes.
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.
The golden eagle’s distribution ranges from North America (including the north of Mexico and Canada), across the whole of Europe, North Africa, Russia, and parts of Asia. As a result of these varying climates, the golden eagle is undoubtedly one of the most adaptable birds of prey species.
While both bald eagles and golden eagles are widely distributed across North America (and the Northern Hemisphere for golden eagles), each species has their preferred habitat which makes it very easy to identify the two.
Bald eagles 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.
Due to their size, bald eagles can’t hover above prey without being noticed, so the tall trees work to provide some camouflage. They choose this habitat due to the abundance of food available both in and out of water.
Like the golden eagle, bald eagles don’t choose habitats close to human populations, which is why they aren’t often found near shorelines.
Golden eagles are far more widely distributed than bald eagles due to their adaptation to different habitats. In most cases, golden eagles are found in open areas such as mountains and cliffsides away from the shore.
They are also found in forests and in varying climates, whereas bald eagles prefer to reside in wet habitats. 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.
Bald eagles are opportunistic feeders, which means they will eat just about anything they can get their claws on.
As their habitats are carefully chosen due to the abundance of food sources, bald eagles generally find food very easily. Their piercing talons and pointed beak means that their bodies are physically prepared to hunt whatever food they like – from land mammals to fish.
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.
Golden eagles are terrestrial predators, which means they only hunt animals that are found on land.
This is probably why their beaks aren’t as sharply hooked as a bald eagle, because they don’t have to swoop down into water to grab fish. Instead, golden eagles will 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.
Hunting Style Identification
With varying diets comes varying hunting styles. Bald eagles are known to perch on tall trees as they use their keen eyesight to look for fish and other unsuspecting prey below.
When they spot a fish, they will swoop down and drop their feet into the water just as they reach the surface of the water. With their sharp and powerful talons, they will grab the fish, and take it back up to their perch where they will eat it.
Golden eagles have a similar hunting approach, however, they don’t always perch on tall trees.
As most of their habitats are open mountainous regions, they will usually glide through the air before swooping down to catch their prey. They will often fly around for hours on end before finding prey, wherein they rely on a stealthy and speedy attack in order to catch it.
Bald eagles and golden eagles make fairly similar nests in terms of materials, shapes, and structures. However, the location of the nests vary. Both species make their nests out of twigs, branches, and other scraps of foliage.
Golden eagles will build their nests in a variety of locations due to their vast habitat range, but most of their nests reside on cliff sides and rocky areas. They tend to stay away from areas of human population and woodland areas – probably because of their preferred hunting location of open areas.
Bald eagles, however, exclusively build their nests at the tops of old, tall trees.
Reproductive Behavior Identification
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 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.
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 mostly solitary birds of prey, meaning they are likely to be aggressive with other eagle species.