Golden or Bald Eagle?

How can a person confuse a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and a golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)? Expert birders probably have no difficulty. Unfortunately I do not fall into that category. Unless the eagles are adults with mature plumage, I need a very good look or a photograph to be certain of my identification. Depending on age, juvenile and sub-adult golden and bald eagles have varying amounts of white or tawny feathers (mottling) on their dark brown bodies and the bill coloration can be similar, as can the eye color. Additionally I have never been very adept at determining comparisons such as “shorter tail”, “less massive bill” and “longer head” in the field.

One difference between golden and bald eagles is the feathering on their legs. The legs of a golden eagle are feathered down to the toes while a bald eagle’s legs are not feathered down to the toes. Granted, the legs are not always perfectly displayed in the field and thus the extent of leg feathering cannot be determined. However, if I see an eagle with feathering down the entire leg, it is a golden eagle, regardless of its age.

These photographs show the similarity between a juvenile bald eagle and a golden eagle as well as the entirely feathered golden eagle leg and a bald eagle leg without feathering to the toes. The juvenile bald eagle was photographed at Baum Lake (Shasta County CA) and  the golden eagle was photographed near Adin CA on County Road 87. A few years ago Leonard, with appropriate authorization, treated a severely injured bald eagle. Unfortunately the bald eagle did not survive its injuries, but I did photograph the treatment and eagle before the carcass was retrieved by the proper wildlife representatives.

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2 Responses to Golden or Bald Eagle?

  1. Mike Powell says:

    Cool photos and interesting and useful information. It’s always tough for me to try to use verbal descriptions to try to match what I have photographed with identification guides (especially for immature birds).I hope to be able to use the information you provided by eventually getting some eagle shots in which I get a clear enough view of the legs.

    • gingkochris says:

      Agreed! The verbal descriptions are often difficult to translate to real life. One needs a drawing or picture. And what really frustrates me is all the “cheep, ark, keew, etc.” notations that I am supposed to translate into actual bird songs and calls. Get real! Thank goodness for recordings!

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