Bald and golden eagles can look surprisingly similar in certain life stages, but a wild double take can help differentiate these two look-alike raptors. The wing position while soaring can help identify the birds at a distance and the lack of feathers on the lower legs can help differentiate a juvenile bald eagle if you get a closer look.
Find tips for identifying Oklahoma’s look-alike species in our video series on YouTube.
Similarities: Bald and golden eagles are both large birds of prey with heavy, hooked bills and strong feet with talons. The birds can weigh more than 10 pounds and have wingspans greater than 6 feet. Similar to golden eagles, juvenile bald eagles have dark heads and tails in addition to dark bodies.
Though their ranges don’t often overlap in Oklahoma, both species nest and winter in the state. These species are protected from disturbance by the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940.
Differences: These look-alikes are most similar when comparing the mostly brown juvenile bald eagle to any life stage of a golden eagle. Though juvenile golden eagles may have some white plumage, the white feathers are more concentrated in wrist patches and at the base of the tail instead of being mottled like the juvenile bald eagle. By the time bald eagles reach four to five years of age, they have developed a distinctive white head and tail and are much easier to identify. In flight, bald eagles have larger heads and soar with their wings held flat while golden eagles have smaller heads, seemingly longer tails, and soar with their wings held in a slight “v.” Though bald eagles will scavenge and eat a variety of prey, they primarily have a fish-based diet. Golden eagles may also have a varied diet but primarily feed on mammals, especially rabbits. As such, the habitats of the two birds don’t often overlap. Bald eagles also have bare lower legs while golden eagles have fully feathered legs.
If you see a bald or golden eagle while exploring Outdoor Oklahoma, consider sharing the sighting on free nature platforms like eBird and iNaturalist. Adding a photo to your observation can allow others to help confirm the identification.