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Just One Eagle Species Calls Illinois Home

You’re probably familiar with bald eagles, but did you know there is another kind of eagle that lives in the United States? Golden eagles also live in parts of our country, and they are sometimes confused with bald eagles.

A back view of a bald eagle with its head turned to the side while perched on a bare tree branch.
A bald eagle. (Photo courtesy of Lori Karr Greene)

With its white head and yellow beak and feet, it would be hard to confuse an adult bald eagle with anything else. However, it takes four or five years for bald eagles to achieve their adult plumage, and until then confusion between the two kinds of eagles is a little more common.


Golden eagles aren't typically seen in Illinois, but the ranges of these two eagle species do overlap across much of western part of the United States. While bald eagles live across the entire United States and much of Canada, golden eagles have a smaller range in the United States. They live year-round in much of the western United States, and some also migrate to Canada and parts of New England. Golden eagles also live in other parts of the world, including Europe and parts of Africa and Asia.


Golden eagles are not commonly reported in Illinois. They are most often seen in the eastern United States during their fall migration, usually between October and December. There are a few places along the East Coast where small populations of golden eagles are known to winter, including Cape May, New Jersey.

 

Words to know

Distinguishing: A characteristic of something that serves to identify it.

Mottled: Marked with spots or smears of color.

Plumage: A bird’s feathers collectively.

 

Before bald eagles achieve their adult plumage, confusion between them and golden eagles is understandable. The birds are about the same size, and both are mostly dark brown in color. If you can get a good look at them soaring overhead, look for white patches. Young golden eagles have a patch of white feathers on each wing and on the tail, while immature bald eagles do not. Instead, juvenile bald eagles have a more mottled appearance without any distinguishing patches.


Golden eagles are named for the golden color of the plumage on their heads and napes. This coloring can be used as an identification feature between the two. While it takes about four or five years for bald eagles to achieve their fully white heads, golden eagles have a golden head from a very young age.


If you can get a good look at their legs and feet while they are standing up, look for feathers, or lack of feathers. Golden eagles have feathers on their legs all the way to their feet, while bald eagles have yellow skin on their ankles that is free of feathers.


Their beaks can also be telling. Bald eagles have very large beaks, about one-third the size of their head. Golden eagles have smaller beaks that are more in proportion with their heads and bodies. The yellow beak color in bald eagles isn't achieved until they reach their full adult coloring, however.


Bald eagles are a well-known symbol of the United States, serving as our country's national emblem and national bird. The golden eagle may not be a traditional symbol of America, but other countries have adopted it as one. The golden eagle serves as the national symbol of Albania, Austria, Germany, Kazakhstan and Mexico.

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