Bold and Gold: Meet the Golden Eagle

Updated: Jun. 10, 2024

Learn what a golden eagle looks like, what golden eagles eat, and where you can spot these large birds of prey in North America.

What Does a Golden Eagle Look Like?

Golden Eagle in flight on blue skyStan Tekiela Author / Naturalist / Wildlife Photographer/Getty Images
Adult golden eagle in flight

The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is one of North America’s largest birds of prey and an impressive hunter and flier. Adults can measure up to 33 inches long and weigh over 13 pounds, with up to a 7-foot wingspan. Both males and females are primarily dark brown in color. Look for the golden feathers on their nape (back of the neck) that give the species its name.

Golden Eagle vs Bald Eagle

Close-up of golden eagle perching on branch,Bend,Oregon,United States,USACharles Cockburn / 500px/Getty Images
Golden eagles are most commonly spotted in the western states.

It’s a thrill to see one, but frequently the large dark brown raptor soaring above you is not this bird, particularly in the Eastern United States. It’s probably an immature bald eagle. Identifying a golden eagle is a challenge if you cannot see its golden nape, but there are a couple of clues.

Bald eagles, which are more common, fly with flat wings perpendicular to their body whereas golden eagles hold their wings higher than perpendicular, like a V,” says Vincent Slabe, Ph.D., a wildlife biologist with The Peregrine Fund who has studied golden eagles for most of his career. “Bald eagles also have a huge head and thick beak that protrudes from their shoulders. The head of a golden eagle looks proportioned to the rest of its body.”

According to Vincent, adult golden eagles and first-year bald eagles are the hardest to tell apart based on plumage because both are primarily brown, but a closer look reveals white mottling on the leading edge of a bald eagle’s wings near its body. Golden eagles don’t have this.

Subadults of both species, which take five years to mature, can also be difficult to tell apart, however golden eagles only have isolated white patches on their wings and the base of their tail, whereas bald eagles display a variation of white feathering throughout their body, tail and wings.

What’s more, golden eagles have feathering down their legs. Bald eagles have bare legs.

“Size won’t help you tell them apart,” continues Vincent. “Some people think golden eagles are bigger than bald eagles, but they’re the same size in general. The females are larger, so if you see a male golden eagle next to female bald eagle, the bald eagle might be bigger.”

Golden Eagle Nesting Habits

Golden Eagle chicks (Aquila chrysaetos) in nest, Seward Peninsula, Alaska, USADanita Delimont/Getty Images
Eaglets in the nest

Female and male golden eagles look the same, too. If you see a golden eagle on a nest, it’s impossible to tell if it’s male or female by its plumage. Both parents tend the eggs and eaglets.

Nesting season varies by latitude, from late January in Mexico to late March in Montana. Eagle nests are the mansions of the bird world, averaging 5 to 6 feet wide and 2 feet high. The largest known golden eagle nest was 20 feet high and 8 1/2 feet wide!

In addition, golden eagle pairs, who mate for life, often have more than one nest within their territory, typically on ledges or sturdy treetops where they can survey their surroundings for prey. They might use one nest for five years then switch, enlarging a nest each time. Some nests date back over a century. For example, a stick pulled from a nest on the Rocky Mountain Front was carbon dated at 500 years old!

Though the average golden eagle clutch is two eggs, although it can vary from one to three or sometimes four. The incubation period is long, up to 45 days. Then it takes another 8 to 11 weeks for the eaglets to leave the nest. Even after fledging, juveniles might stick around for several months and are still fed by their parents until they hunt efficiently.

“It varies widely how quickly juveniles leave to be on their own, but they are always gone when the parents are ready to lay eggs again,” says Vincent. “A five-year-old male might mate with a 12-year-old female who has a nest territory but lost her mate. After four years, the older female might die of old age so he recruits a new, younger female. When he dies, the younger female finds a new mate, and the cycle continues if a territory is good. That’s also how some nests get so big. Golden eagles might migrate, but once established in a spot, they come back.”

Range and Habitat

Golden eagle takes off from cliffs Littleton Coloradomilehightraveler/Getty Images
A golden eagle taking off from rocky cliffs at Waterton Canyon in Colorado

Of the roughly 50,000 golden eagles in the United States, only 4,000 are found in the East, all migratory. No breeding pairs have been recorded in the eastern half of the country since the 1990s. According to Vincent, the ones that nest in Labrador, Quebec and Ontario travel along the Appalachian Mountains to winter as far south as Georgia and Alabama.

“Human encroachment on golden eagle habitat is the main reason why they don’t nest in the East,” says Vincent. “They are secretive birds and sensitive to humans.”

Golden eagles are at home in a variety of habitats including fields, prairie and mountains. In the West, these birds are a mixture of migrants and residents—especially where prey is plentiful. For example, they might breed in Alaska and Canada and then winter in northern states like Montana and Wyoming where other members of the species reside year-round.

Diet: What Do Golden Eagles Eat?

Golden eagle on elk carcass in Yellowstone USAJohn Morrison/Getty Images
A golden eagle, common raven and black-billed magpies surround an elk carcass

While the most common opportunity to see golden eagles is often on roadkill, carrion is not their preferred food. “When breeding, when there are lots of animals on the landscape, their diet is 80% small mammals that they’ve hunted, like ground squirrels, rabbits and prairie dogs, but most go underground during the winter,” says Vincent. “They’ll also prey on fawns, other birds, and reptiles. Their diet depends on prey availability. In Canada near the ocean, they eat lots of seabirds, but in Montana, it’s jackrabbits, though they’ll scavenge if they have to.”

Despite their size, golden eagles are agile in the air. When they see a target, they can dive from a great height to strike their prey with deadly talons. “Their feet are for killing and their beak is for eating,” says Vincent. “When we’re banding golden eagles, it hurts if they bite you, but you’re going straight to the hospital if they grab you.”

Golden Eagle Sounds

These birds of prey really don’t call much. Sometimes females call from the nest—a begging call that sounds whistly and a bit like a gull.

Bird sounds courtest of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Golden Eagle Conservation

Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos).David Madison/Getty Images
Golden eagle perched on utility poles

These birds have lost large swaths of habitat to development. In addition, this regal eagle is susceptible to collisions with wind turbines, electrocution when perching on utility poles, and lead poisoning from gutpiles left by hunters.

Fortunately, more hunters are switching to lead-free alternatives. Power companies can insulate poles or separate live and grounded equipment preventing eagles from touching both at the same time. But other threats to golden eagles remain.

A keystone species and thus an indicator of ecosystem health, they are worth caring about. “If you see golden eagles, you are in the most beautiful places in the country and are likely surrounded by many other animals, too,” says Vincent. “It’s a nature-experience like no other.”

Next, don’t miss these stunning and inspiring bald eagle pictures.

About the Expert

Vincent A. Slabe, Ph.D. is a research wildlife biologist based in Missoula, Montana, with The Peregrine Fund. He specializes in raptors, though golden eagles are his favorites, ever since he first held a golden eagle in a banding tent. Vincent is the lead author of the landmark research paper, “Demographic implications of lead poisoning for eagles across North America” (Science, February 2022).