The Golden Eagle is a fairly rare sight in Western Washington, and is a very rare patient for us to have in care. Although we are occasionally contacted by members of the public who believe they have found an injured Golden Eagle, most turn out to be juvenile Bald Eagles.
The two species can be confusing to the untrained eye, especially when viewed individually, or at a distance. Placing the two side by side makes identifying them a bit easier. Below you can see a juvenile Bald Eagle on the left, and an adult Golden Eagle on the right. Note the slightly smaller beak on the Golden Eagle as well as the lighter, golden feathers on the back of the head and nape of the neck.
The Bald Eagle in the photo above is a dark, first-year bird. It takes Bald Eagles about four to five years to reach full maturity, at which point their heads and tail feathers are fully white. The transition is gradual, however, so older juveniles show more white than their younger counterparts. This sometimes creates confusion for those trying to identify the birds. The three-year-old Bald Eagle below is a perfect example.
Fortunately, there is a way to differentiate Bald and Golden Eagles without relying exclusively on the color of their feathers. The key is to look at their legs and feet. The feathers on a Bald Eagle’s leg do not extend all the way down to the toes (see photo on the left below). A small section of their lower leg is bare. The feathers on a Golden Eagle’s leg do extend all the way to the toes (below, right).
So the next time you are trying to distinguish between a juvenile Bald Eagle and a Golden Eagle, ask yourself, “Is this bird showing a little leg?” If the answer is “yes” you are looking at a Bald Eagle.