Golden Eagle vs Bald Eagle: 8 Key Differences Explained

Written by Patrick Sather
Published: September 20, 2021


The bald eagle is the national bird and symbol of the United States. In 1782, the Continental Congress adopted the bald eagle for its design of the Great Seal of the United States. Since then, it went on to grace many other official government designs, including the presidential seal and flag and the logos for numerous government agencies. However, many ornithologists and bird enthusiasts protest that the eagle on the country’s seal is not a bald eagle but actually a golden eagle because of its feathered ankles. The golden eagle is another famous raptor, and several countries claim it as their national animal, including Albania, Austria, Germany, Kazakhstan, and Mexico. Due to their similar appearance, especially when immature, the two birds often get confused for one another. Given this confusion, can you tell the difference between a golden eagle vs bald eagle?

To tell these large birds of prey apart, we’ll first need to compare them to one another.  Despite their similar size and colors, if you know where to look and pay attention to their behavior, it’s easy to spot the differences between the two. In this article, we’ll discuss eight key differences that separate the golden eagle vs bald eagle before ending with some frequently asked questions about these famous birds. 

Comparing Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles

Golden EagleBald Eagle
TaxonomyGenus: Aquila
More closely related to hawks called Buteos
Genus: Haliaeetus
“Sea eagles”
More closely related to kites 
HabitatOpen plains, mountains, deserts, forests, and areas with cliffsAreas with lots of trees
Wetlands such as seacoasts, rivers, lakes, and marshes
RangeNorth America, Europe, Asia, and parts of North AfricaNorth America
From northern Mexico to southern Canada and Alaska
PlumageDark brown bodies 
Lighter golden-brown neck
White markings on wings and tail
Dark brown body
White head, neck, and tail
Color changes as fledglings mature
BeakSmaller, black beakLarge, yellow beak
AnklesFeathers to the tops of their feet“Booted eagles”Feathers stop a few inches above feet
NestsLarge stick nests on cliffs or in tall trees
Avoid humans
Large stick nests in tall trees near water
Not as bothered by humans
DietSmall birds and mammals like rabbits, prairie dogs, ground squirrels, marmots, foxes, young deer, reptiles, turtles, and carrion
Sometimes steals from birds
Primarily fish, but also waterfowl, rabbits, prairie dogs, and carrion
Often steals food from other birds 

The 8 Key Differences Between Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles

Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles: Taxonomy

The golden eagle and bald eagle both belong to the family Accipitridae, which includes eagles, hawks, kites, harriers, and vultures. However, although they both bear the name eagle, they are not closely related to one another. Golden eagles belong to the genus Aquila, also known as the “true eagles.” Their name comes from the Latin word for eagle and its derivate, which means “dark in color.” In terms of relation, their closest relative includes the raptors in the hawk family or Buteos. Meanwhile, the bald eagle belongs to the genus Haliaeetus, commonly known as sea eagles. Unlike the gold eagle, its closest relative includes the birds in the kite family. 

Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles: Habitat

Although the ranges of the golden and bald eagle overlap, they live in different habitats. Golden eagles tend to prefer rocky, open plains areas with plenty of cliffs. That said, they also live in deserts, mountainous regions, and areas with thin tree cover. On average, they avoid overly developed areas and densely forested areas. Today, most golden eagles live in mountain regions in both cold, wet, and temperate climates. On the other hand, bald eagles prefer to live in wetland areas near large bodies of water. These include seacoasts, rivers, lakes, and marshes. They also prefer heavily forested areas that contain an abundance of old-growth trees. 

Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles: Range

As previously mentioned, the range of golden eagles and bald eagles overlap. However, despite this overlap, several key differences separate the two. The golden eagle is the most widely distributed species of eagle globally. Its range includes North America from Mexico to Canada, although it tends to reside west of the Mississippi River. In addition, they also range throughout parts of Europe and Africa and across vast swaths of Asia. Meanwhile, the bald eagle’s range is strictly confined to North America. It ranges from northern Mexico to Canada and Alaska. During the 20th century, it almost disappeared entirely from the eastern half of the United States. Thanks to intense conservation efforts, it now lives throughout much of its historical range. 

Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles: Plumage

As fledglings, golden and bald eagles look strikingly similar. So similar, in fact, that even many bird enthusiasts would struggle to tell them apart. Both birds sport dark brown plumage with white markings on the wings and tails. However, as they reach sexual maturity, the differences become more noticeable. The feathers around golden eagles’ necks appear golden-brown, which is where they get their name. In addition, the white mottling is usually limited to the underwings and the base of the tail. Until bald eagles reach four or five years old, they look remarkably similar to golden eagles. Once they reach sexual maturity, though, they acquire their distinctive white hood. The name bald eagle comes from the Middle English word “balde,” which means white. Furthermore, the bald eagle’s tail feathers become almost entirely white during adulthood. 

Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles: Beak

Another distinctive difference between a golden eagle vs bald eagle is the size and color of their beaks. A golden eagle’s beak appears more like a hawk’s beak and is more in proportion to its body. They stay brown throughout their lives and do not grow especially large. Before reaching sexual maturity, the beak of a bald eagle also appears brown. However, once they reach adulthood, the beak changes to a bright yellow or golden color. In addition, their beaks grow larger than those on golden eagles and appear more hooked. 

Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles: Ankles

One of the reasons why some people believe the Great Seal of the United States depicts a golden eagle rather than a bald eagle concerns the feathering on bird’s ankles. If you look closely at the seal, the eagle clearly features feathers on its ankles. Also known as the booted eagle, golden eagles grow feathers all the way to their feet. This means that their ankles remain covered, and their skin is not exposed. On the other hand, bald eagles do not grow feathers to their feet. Their feathers stop right above their ankles, leaving the skin there wholly bare. 

Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles: Nests

Although the nests of golden eagles and bald eagles appear similar, a few minor differences exist between them. For example, they both build large nests made of sticks. That said, golden eagles prefer to build their nests on cliffsides rocky ledges. They will build their nests in trees if they can not find a suitable rocky perch for a nest, although generally not in heavily wooded areas. In addition, they tend to build their nests farther away from areas with human activity. Meanwhile, bald eagles almost exclusively build their nests atop old-growth trees. They make the largest nests of any bird species, measuring up to 13 feet deep, 8.2 feet wide, and 1 metric ton. Lastly, they do not mind living close to humans and often scavenge near trash sites to pick through leftovers.

Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles: Diet

The diet of a golden eagle vs bald eagle share several similarities. For example, both birds will hunt small mammals, including rabbits and prairie dogs. The main difference lies in how much they rely on mammals for sustenance. Whereas the golden eagle eats almost exclusively mammals and carrion, mammals make up a smaller proportion of a bald eagle’s diet. Also, golden eagles eat a wider variety of mammals, such as marmots, ground squirrels, and small deer. Evidence also exists of golden eagles pulling goats from cliffs to their deaths and feasting on the carcasses. In addition, they will also eat reptiles, including turtles, and occasionally steal from other birds. 

Meanwhile, bald eagles subsist primarily on fish. Their reliance on fish is the primary reason why they tend to live near large bodies of water so that they can access a steady supply of food. However, they also will live of carrion, and in recent years some populations have been documented raiding human trash heaps. Furthermore, they frequently steal food from other birds, making them one of the most notorious kleptoparasites amongst all bird species. 

Frequently Asked Questions Concerning Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles

Do golden eagles and bald eagles mate for life?

Yes, most golden and bald eagles mate for life or at least for several years. However, if one of the birds dies, the surviving partner may find another mate. 

How large do golden and bald eagles grow?

Golden and bald eagles both count among the largest eagles in the world. Golden eagles measure around 26 to 40 inches in length with a wingspan between 5 feet, 11 inches, and 7 feet, 8 inches long. Bald eagles measure 28 to 40 inches in length, with a wingspan from 5 feet, 11 inches to 7 feet, 7 inches long.