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Golden Eagle

Aquila chrysaetos ORDER: ACCIPITRIFORMES FAMILY: ACCIPITRIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Golden Eagle is one of the largest, fastest, nimblest raptors in North America. Lustrous gold feathers gleam on the back of its head and neck; a powerful beak and talons advertise its hunting prowess. You're most likely to see this eagle in western North America, soaring on steady wings or diving in pursuit of the jackrabbits and other small mammals that are its main prey. Sometimes seen attacking large mammals, or fighting off coyotes or bears in defense of its prey and young, the Golden Eagle has long inspired both reverence and fear.

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Keys to identification Help

Hawks
Hawks
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Golden Eagles are one of the largest birds in North America. The wings are broad like a Red-tailed Hawk's, but longer. At distance, the head is relatively small and the tail is long, projecting farther behind than the head sticks out in front.

  • Color Pattern

    Adult Golden Eagles are dark brown with a golden sheen on the back of the head and neck. For their first several years of life, young birds have neatly defined white patches at the base of the tail and in the wings.

  • Behavior

    Usually found alone or in pairs, Golden Eagles typically soar or glide with wings lifted into a slight “V” and the wingtip feathers spread like fingers. They capture prey on or near the ground, locating it by soaring, flying low over the ground, or hunting from a perch.

  • Habitat

    Golden Eagles favor partially or completely open country, especially around mountains, hills, and cliffs. They use a variety of habitats ranging from arctic to desert, including tundra, shrublands, grasslands, coniferous forests, farmland, and areas along rivers and streams. Found mostly in the western half of the U.S., they are rare in eastern states.

Range Map Help

Golden Eagle Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Golden Eagle

    Adult
    • Large and stocky raptor with relatively small head
    • Similar in shape to Buteo hawks, but larger
    • Mostly dark brown overall
    • Golden blonde nape and crown
    • © Ron Kube, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, March 2011
  • Adult

    Golden Eagle

    Adult
    • Very large raptor with relatively small head
    • Structure similar to Buteo hawks, but larger
    • Golden blonde nape distinctive
    • Mostly dark brown overall
    • © Ron Kube, Nanton, Alberta, Canada, February 2010
  • Juvenile

    Golden Eagle

    Juvenile
    • Large raptor with long wings that bulge near body
    • Mostly dark brown overall
    • Juveniles show distinct white patches on wings and at base of tail
    • Often soars with wings held up at slight angle
    • © hawk person, Coyote Valley, California, August 2011
  • Adult

    Golden Eagle

    Adult
    • Large raptor with long wings
    • Solid chocolate brown overall
    • Distinctive golden-blonde nape often visible in flight
    • Buffy orange undertail coverts
    • © B.N. Singh, Blackwater NWR, Maryland, January 2010
  • Juvenile

    Golden Eagle

    Juvenile
    • Large raptor with long wings that bulge slightly near body
    • Juvenile shows white patches on wings and at base of tail
    • Golden-blonde nape and crown
    • Often soars with wings held up at slight angle
    • © dwaynejava, Holiday Beach, Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada, November 2010
  • Juvenile

    Golden Eagle

    Juvenile
    • Large raptor with long wings that bulge slightly near body
    • Relatively small-headed
    • Golden-blonde nape and crown
    • Juvenile shows white patches on wings
    • © Robinsegg, Salt Lake County, Utah, January 2009
  • Juvenile

    Golden Eagle

    Juvenile
    • Large, long-winged raptor
    • Relatively small head with golden-blonde nape
    • Juvenile shows white patches on wings and at base of tail
    • Mostly dark brown overall
    • © Jacqueline Deely, Don Edwards NWR, Alviso, California, February 2011

Similar Species

  • Dark morph adult

    Ferruginous Hawk

    Dark morph adult
    • Smaller and more compact than Golden Eagle
    • Rounded head
    • Warm chestnut-brown wash across breast
    • © Dennis Curry, Bosque del Apache NWR, San Antonio, New Mexico, December 2008
  • Dark morph adult

    Ferruginous Hawk

    Dark morph adult
    • Smaller than Golden Eagle with shorter, narrower wings
    • Two-toned underwing pattern
    • Pale whitish undertail
    • © Cameron Rognan, Washington, Utah, February 2011
  • Adult

    Turkey Vulture

    Adult
    • Superficially similar to Golden Eagle but unfeathered red head is distinctive
    • Longer and lankier than Golden Eagle
    • Small white bill
    • © bmse, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Huntington Beach, California, November 2010
  • Juvenile

    Bald Eagle

    Juvenile
    • Similar to juvenile Golden Eagle but with larger head and more massive bill
    • Solid dark crown and nape
    • Black bill
    • © CleberBirds, Orlando, Florida, March 2011
  • Juvenile

    Bald Eagle

    Juvenile
    • Similar to juvenile Bald Eagle but with broader wings held straight
    • Large head and massive black bill
    • Extensive white mottling on underwings with no distinct patches or spots
    • Dark nape and crown
    • © Roger P. Kirchen, Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, Canada, July 2011

Similar Species

Turkey Vultures have much smaller heads and hold their wings in a more pronounced V-shape than Golden Eagles. Their narrower wings are not as steady and they often teeter as they soar. Turkey Vultures have more contrast between their black underwing coverts and the silvery gray flight feathers that form the trailing edge of the wing. Bald Eagles are more common, widespread, and gregarious than Golden Eagles in North America. Bald Eagles have larger heads and soar with their wings flat across, like a board. Adult Golden Eagles lack both the white mottling of immature Bald Eagles and the white head and tail of adult Bald Eagles. Young Golden Eagles often have white patches under the wing and at the base of the tail—but it's always more clearly defined than the white mottling on the body and wings of immature Bald Eagles. Soaring Red-tailed Hawks have shorter wings and smaller heads than Golden Eagles and are typically pale underneath. Seen from below, dark-morph Ferruginous Hawks are paler under the wing and tail than Golden Eagles. When perched, they have rusty tones in the breast and wing coverts and lack the eagle's golden nape.

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