Bald Vs. Golden Eagle

Juvenile bald eagle

This young bald eagle shows the classic white mottling and the brown mask around the eye. Note that its beak is dark, not yellow like the adult.

A huge raptor stood on a fencepost near Island Park Reservoir. Without a doubt, it was an eagle, but which one, bald or golden? It clearly wasn’t an adult bald eagle—with the white head and tail, this national icon is unmistakable. However, the juveniles or immatures (juvenile for the first year, immature after that)—and they take five years to fully mature—look similar, and even look similar to an adult golden eagle, making eagle identification a challenge at times.

Adult bald and golden eagles are similarly sized, but in flight the golden eagle will appear to have a smaller head and longer tail. That is only useful if you have an adult bald eagle to compare to. The real question in this case is whether or not the unknown eagle (the adult bald eagle will be obvious) is an immature bald or golden eagle or a mature golden eagle. One difference to look for is that golden eagles soar with wings slightly raised above the body, more like a turkey vulture, while bald eagles soar with wings in flat plane with the body.

Both species have yellow feet so that isn’t much help in identification. However, the adult bald eagle has a distinct yellow beak. An immature bald eagle will have a beak that trends more from gray to yellow as it approaches maturity. The golden eagle, both adult and immature, has a black-tipped beak, fading to gray, and then finally yellow near the nostrils. It is much less prominent than the colorful beak of the adult bald eagle. However, there can still be confusion between the immature bald eagle and the golden eagle, immature or adult, when comparing beak color.

Mature golden eagles have a solid inner wing lining when viewed from below. This is different from both the immature bald and golden eagles. While maturing, the immature bald eagle will have some to a lot of speckling on the underside of its wings. A two-year old will also have a mostly white or mottled chest and belly and a brown mask with a lighter top of head, but the white can be highly variable.

The immature golden eagle will have definite white wing patches, visible from above and below, at its wrists, just past halfway out on the wing.

The base of the tail of an immature golden eagle is also white. This is quite prominent and obvious in flight and usually when perched, especially with younger birds. The replacement of these tail feathers is fairly uniform and can be used to roughly age the bird. If there is a lot of white, it is a young bird. If the white area is encroached by brown, it is an older bird. Birds with a high degree of mottling in the tail are close to adulthood. An immature bald eagle may have white on the tail, but not at the base.

When identifying immature eagles, keep in mind that everything changes as the bird approaches maturity. A second-year bird may be quite different from a fourth-year bird in either species.

Sometimes you can separate these two eagle species by habitat, with the bald eagle preferring habitats that include open water and the golden eagle preferring cliffy open country. However, there is enough overlap in habitat use that you still must look carefully at juvenile and immature birds to make sure you are identifying them correctly. Either one will be a thrill though and if you misidentify one on occasion, who is going to care?

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho