Who is That Eagle in Front of Me?

close-up of a bald eagle head
Close-up of bald eagle by Rich Keen

North America is home to two species of eagles: bald and golden eagles. Observing either species in the wild provides people a connection to a national conservation legacy that is ingrained into the fabric of our nation. You can spot bald and golden eagles at National Wildlife Refuges and National Fish Hatcheries across the United States, but it can be tricky to identify them.

When fully mature, each species has defining characteristics that are hard to miss.

Bald eagles are adorned with a radiant white head and tail, and a dark brown body. They can be found all around the United States.

Golden eagles appear to have an almost completely dark brown appearance. However, when caught in direct light, feathers on the bird’s head glow a warmth of golden brown. They are primarily found west of the Rocky Mountains, but during migration periods and winter they could potentially be located in the Midwest and East of the United States. Golden eagles are globally widespread and can also be found in Asia, Africa and Europe.

adult bald eagle soaring in blue sky
adult golden eagle soaring in a blue sky
Left: Adult bald eagle by Tom Koerner/USFWS | Right: Adult golden eagle by Tom Koerner/USFWS

The real challenge to properly spotting and identifying eagles is when the birds are still maturing, which takes around 4 or 5 years from birth. Before maturity, distinguishing between bald and golden eagles is a delicate task.

Immature golden eagles have windows to the sky. When observing a flying immature golden eagle, you will note they have two identical, symmetrical white patches on their wings. They also have a broad white band at the base of their tail feathers.

Immature golden eagle soaring in the sky
Immature golden eagle by Mark Robbins / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML57752091)

Immature bald eagles are spotty to the eye. When observing a flying immature bald eagle, you will note they have splotchy, asymmetrical white feathers. While perched, look for white coloration on the eagle’s head, body and wings.

immature bald eagle with white splotchy feathers perched on a utility pole
Photo: Immature bald eagle by Ray Fetherman

Eagles are sexually dimorphic, meaning males and females of the same species do not have identical traits. In both species of eagles, females tend to be 1/3 larger than males.

Bald eagles tend to be common near water, such as rivers and lakes. You can often see them perched in a tree above these water features. Golden eagles tend to be common in open, tree-less areas and can often be seen perched on rocky outcroppings on tall buttes.

Is it an eagle, hawk or vulture? Eagles typically have a very direct flight path with slow wingbeats. Hawks generally soar on thermals and have strong wingbeats followed by bouts of soaring. When soaring, eagles look like a plank moving through the sky. Vultures hold their wings in a “V” shape and exhibit a wobble movement through a circular flight pattern.

We hope these identification tips help you spot bald and golden eagles on your next outdoor adventure. Spotting an eagle of either species in 2021 is a direct connection to a conservation legacy that will continue through all future generations.

bald eagle soaring through sky with trout in its talons
close-up of adult golden eagle with yellow eyes
Left: Adult bald eagle with trout in talons by Steve Fairbairn/USFWS | Right: Adult golden eagle by Vic Schendel/USFWS

If you happen to find a feather or other parts from these majestic creatures, let us know! While federal law prevents most people from keeping feathers or other parts from eagles or most other birds, Native Americans have used eagle parts and feathers for religious and cultural purposes, including healing, marriage and naming ceremonies. The National Eagle Repository collects and provides eagle parts to federally-recognized tribes, and demand is so high there is a waiting period to receive them. So by reporting your find, you can help people too!

Learn more about bald and golden eagles.

Story by Kari Cieszkiewicz, an Environmental Education Specialist at the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming.

We’re dedicated to the conservation, protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats.

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