The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is America’s national bird and one of the most recognizable avians in the world. These large and distinctive white-headed sea eagles occur near salt and freshwater bodies from Alaska to Mexico. Juvenile Bald Eagles look very different from adults, however, so how do birdwatchers identify these young raptors with confidence?
Juvenile Bald Eagles lack the characteristic white head and white tail of their elders. First-year birds are dark brown overall, becoming increasingly flecked in lighter feathers as they grow older. Young birds do have the diagnostic bright yellow feet of their species, but their bills are dark with a yellow gape, rather than the conspicuous all-yellow of the adults.
Three juvenile Bald Eagles in the nest, waiting to be fed
Bald Eagles leave the nest about 2 to 3 months after hatching and keep their juvenile plumage until the following spring. Their new plumage includes more and more white coloration until the birds reach sexual maturity and their adult plumage at about 5.5 years old. During these first few years, the young eagles disperse widely, either in migration or as nomads.
Juvenile and immature Bald Eagles are most likely to be confused with the similar-sized Golden Eagle, although the two species tend to occupy different habitats and there are some important differences in plumage. They can also be confused with large hawks and vultures when seen from a distance.
This article will help you identify the juvenile Bald Eagle, a familiar but surprisingly tricky American favorite. Read along to learn what these young birds look like, and how to distinguish them from some similar birds of prey.
Close up of a juvenile Bald Eagle perched on driftwood
Juvenile Bald Eagles are massive birds of prey with large heads and large, heavy hooked bills.
In flight, their head extends to more than half the length of the tail and if seen in low flight, the wings are held out level with the body.
Bald eagles have long wings with large, prominent primary feathers creating a rounded wing tip.
Juvenile Bald Eagles appear dark brown with white spots and mottling. When seen from below in flight, the end of the tail is tipped with a fairly distinct dark bar. As the young birds go through each successive molt, their plumage becomes more variable, and they become increasingly pale.
Young Bald Eagles do not develop the white head and tail that their species is known for until they are about 5 years old.
Close up of a juvenile Bald Eagle in flight
Juvenile Bald Eagles are mostly dark brown, although they have some white plumage on the undersides of their wings. These white feathers show up as white armpits when the birds are seen from below in flight.
Juvenile Bald Eagles do not have the piercing yellow eyes of their parents or the bright yellow bill. Instead, their eyes are brown and the bill is dark. They do, however, have the same yellow lower legs and feet as the adults.
Bald Eagles are the largest eagles in North America, and second only to the magnificent California Condor when compared with other birds of prey. While their feathers will continue to develop, the juveniles do not grow much after leaving the nest. In fact, their bones will have grown to full size and they may even lose weight after fledging.
Bald Eagle Body Measurements
Juvenile Bald Eagle with spread wings
The adult Bald Eagle diet is varied, but getting a meal often requires great skill or even intimidation.
Juvenile Bald Eagles are supported by their parents for several weeks after leaving the nest, but in the coming months, they will need to learn to find their food all by themselves. They lack the skills necessary to catch their own live prey or steal from other birds at this time, so they tend to scavenge on dead fish and other carcasses.
Juvenile Bald Eagle feeding on carrion
Bald Eagles have fully developed their juvenile plumage by 11 - 14 weeks after hatching. They keep these feathers until their second calendar year when their first molt begins in the spring and is completed by late summer. Bald Eagles molt each year thereafter, only attaining their characteristic adult (definitive) plumage in their 5th or 6th year.
Juvenile Bald Eagle molting into adult plumage
Juvenile Bald Eagles leave their nest at 8 -14 weeks after hatching. This is often weeks before they have completed their first molt into juvenile plumage.
These birds may return to the often large and impressive nest for several weeks, however, to use the site as a convenient feeding platform.
Juvenile Bald Eagles rely on their parents for food during their first 6 weeks after leaving their nest, although they may stay near their parents for a further month thereafter.
Adult (left) and juvenile (right) Bald Eagle perched in a tree together
The Golden Eagle is the species most easily confused with the juvenile Bald Eagle. The two raptors don’t usually occupy the same habitats, but where their territories overlap, there are some important physical differences between these two large eagles.
Read on to learn where and what to look for when distinguishing between Golden Eagles and juvenile Bald Eagles.
One of the defining features of the Golden Eagle is the golden/blonde color on the nape of their necks. This can be very useful for telling the two species apart when perched. The belly of a perched bird should also be inspected for any signs of white plumage, which will be absent on Golden Eagles. White belly feathers are usually absent on first-year Bald Eagles too but can be quite prominent on older immature birds. Birders should also take note of the position of any white underside plumage on a flying eagle.
First-year Bald Eagles have white wing feathers on either side of their body in the ‘arm-pit’ area. These areas of white feathers are roughly defined, unlike the neat white wing patches of a young Golden Eagle that are located further towards the wing tip.
The white patch on the tail of a young Golden Eagle is also much clearer and contrasts strongly with a dark terminal band. Juvenile Bald Eagles also have a white on the underside of their tails, although it tends to be mixed with darker plumage, resulting in a weakly defined band.
Juvenile Bald Eagle
Both eagles have rich yellow feet, but bald Eagle feet appear more yellow due to the exposed lower tarsi. In comparison, the lower legs of the Golden Eagle are feathered all the way down to their feet.
Bald Eagles have much larger heads than Golden Eagles, especially when compared with their tail size. The bill of the Bald Eagle also looks more massive compared to that of the Golden Eagle.
One clear difference between these two birds lies in the color of the cere, which is the fleshy base of the upper side of the bill. Golden eagles have a distinctive yellow cere, while juvenile Bald Eagle bills are all dark, becoming more yellow as the bird ages.
Golden Eagles are not the only birds that can be confused with juvenile Bald Eagles. Birdwatchers should attempt to rule out the following species to confirm their identification.
Osprey: Ospreys are a common hawk of rivers, lakes, and coastal areas. These large hawks differ from juvenile Bald Eagles in that their plumage is markedly dark and white. Even juvenile Ospreys have a dark back and white underparts, with whitish legs and feet.
Red-Tailed Hawk: The Red-Tailed Hawk is a common and widespread raptor that can be confused from a distance. They are much smaller than Bald Eagles, however, and have broader wings with smaller primary feathers. Adult Red-Tailed Hawks also have a reddish tail, a pale belly with a darker belly band, and characteristic dark patagial marks on the front edges of their wings.
Turkey Vultures: Turkey Vultures are large, dark birds of prey that can be confused with juvenile Bald Eagles. These vultures are smaller, however, with noticeably smaller heads. In flight, Turkey Vultures hold their wings up at an angle, rather than spread out level with their body.
Juvenile bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) sitting on a rock in seashore of Alaska
Baby eagles are known as eaglets. They are known as juveniles once they have lost their downy hatchling feathers and gained their first flight feathers. After molting out of their juvenile plumage, young Bald Eagles are said to be immature until they have gained their adult plumage and reached sexual maturity.
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