How to Tell Young Eagles From Adults


I got a question on the previous post asking why I had so many young eagles posted. They wanted to know if they were my best shots as opposed to those of adult eagles. I guess I need to explain what is the difference so you to can tell the approximate age of the eagles pictured. Both young and old eagles are very large, weighing about 8-15 pounds and the adults stand approximately three feet tall.


Noticeable differences:

Adults have yellow feet and bills. The youngsters have dark talons and bill. Babies are whitish fluff balls.

Adult eagles are brown, and immature eagles are even darker. The adults have white heads and tail feathers, the immature eagles do not until approaching adulthood.


Eagle only about two years old above. Adult below.


Size is different too. Immature eagles look sized a lot like the Black Vultures or even large hawks. They get larger as they get older. When they reach five years old they get their white head and tail. When about four, the head is not fully white and looks rather dingy white. Oh, and female eagles are a bit larger than their male counterparts. When full-grown, the eagles have a six-foot wingspan.


As to why so many young eagles, in June, and by August the young have learned to hunt and fish on their own. The dam provides a huge supply of fish when the turbines are running. The youngsters learn how, and how large a fish to catch.

I saw many young eagles fumble their catch by getting too large a fish. I also saw some misjudge the descent and accidentally land in the water. Did you know they can swim? They do not yet have the finesse of the older eagles.

They also learn to steal a meal from other more capable eagles. This is valuable because as grown eagles, they steal food from many birds and even some mammals. Don’t you just love that our national emblem is a bully and thief? Not to mention a garbage picker too. You often see them picking at dead animals also.


On Nature and Wildlife Pics, A Guide to Viewing Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam.


Since it was asked, the professional photographers prefer to photograph young eagles. Why you ask? Because the adults present an exposure challenge with that white head. I will tell you all about that on Nature and Wildlife Pics. Also, the young eagles are more active, flying in groups and sparring with each other. They also have a bigger appetite, so fish more often. Other words, they put on a better show for the photographers.

If you would like to know what I learned about photographing eagles, see the upcoming post on Nature and Wildlife Pics. Here on GWGT next, my impressions of both seeing so much wildlife and damming the large (447 miles) river.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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44 Responses to How to Tell Young Eagles From Adults

  1. Great pictures. Thanks for explaining the differences. These were things I never knew!

  2. Laura says:

    Thanks for noting the key difference between young eagles and adults. I would love to see the baby “puffballs”

  3. avian101 says:

    Very good post! 🙂

  4. Interesting information and it made me look a bit closer. Great photos. 😀

  5. Fascinating. You should be on the staff of National Geographic! Your photos and knowledge are unparalleled. I can see why the mature eagles would present an exposure challenge with their white heads. I must admit: I have trouble differentiating hawks, turkey vultures, and eagles, from a distance. There’s a fabulous spot along the Wisconsin River in Sauk Prairie/Prairie du Sac where the bald eagles gather in large numbers in January: They’re fascinating to watch!

    • What a nice thing to say. I have a few images where that head was glowing. It is hard to make exposure decisions quickly because the birds move so fast. With a new camera, i was trying many things. I found the best images were manual, but I did start out on shutter priority like I do often with hawks. I read on Photofocus that this is the way to go, but I found it does not work with eagles. The head blows out. Scott Bourne says, “When shooting birds in flight, use shutter priority. A fast shutter speed is essential to capturing birds in flight. Unless you want to blur the subject for creative reasons, a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second should be your minimum preferred shutter speed. Also use the lowest ISO you can and still get a fast shutter speed.” I also found eagles need about1/2000 sec. shutter. They move too quick. Thanks for the link. I always want to see eagles.

  6. the images of the eagles are wonderful! i especially loved the one of the wings stretched from one side of the image to the other – wow, what a great ‘catch’!

    internet willing, i’m heading to the link now! z

  7. Loved your photos! And thanks for the facts on mature and immature eagles.

  8. aussiebirder says:

    Great pics of your eagle, similar developmental characteristics to our ones, with the speckling and brown, grey white features for camouflage protection till they mature. You are inspiring me to feature the Wedge-tailed Eagle and White-bellied Sea Eagle soon! Though my pics are not as good as yours… well done!

  9. I really enjoyed your post and all of the beautiful photos!

  10. You did such an amazing job of capturing the spirit of these magnificent creatures.

  11. You did such a magnificent job of capturing the spirit of these magnificent creatures.

  12. Great information, Donna. We have eagles at a nearby fish-and-pay lake and I am always complaining I never saw one. Now I am wondering if I have seen young eagles and mistaken them for large hawks (we have plenty of those on our property) or vultures. P. x

    • I was the same until last year. I saw them in the Niagara River many years, but could never get a photo with them being so far away. I used to mistake young bald eagles for the Golden Eagle. They are easy to confuse too.

  13. Aquileana says:

    Stunning post… Beautiful photographs and I much enjoyed learning about eagles!.
    Happy 2015 to you. Sending you all my best wishes!. Aquileana

  14. A.M.B. says:

    Thanks for the guidance! I really should go see these guys in the wild. I’m sure my girls would love it.

    • Conowingo Dam has to be about an hour from you too. Just download the pdf from this post. If you go, just go quickly, the eagles are pairing up and leaving for the breeding sites. Some are residents here, but you will not see the 50-100 that I saw.

  15. Young or old they are amazing birds. I would love to be able to photograph them like you do.

  16. So glad to find this post. I’m trying to learn how to distinguish Eagles. I live on SkidAway island where they have set up a video cam on an Eagles nest but apparently no one is sure the Eagles will be back – some owls have been checking it out. I’m don’t think I have a long enough lens to capture anything as spectacular as your photos – they truly are inspirational!

    • I have all ages in the post and on my other blog, except for the nestlings. The three year old eagle has much mottling in coloration. The first image, the eagle is likely about three. There were many four year old eagles at the park. Almost adults, but still acting like youngsters. Thank you for visiting the post. Eagles do return many times and use the same nest. I think it has more to do with maintaining the territory, but they will re-use a nest they made previously.

  17. Thank you for the interesting and informative post. I just learned something new thanks to you! I have always admired these beautiful creatures.

  18. Great information and wonderful shots!

  19. Indie says:

    So interesting! And beautiful shots! I’m still working on distinguishing different types of raptors from far away. How great to be able to spot eagles in the area!

  20. I just got the New Years post and could not find the comment block so came back here. Happy New Year. I was in Panama and just got back. Were you here? Carolyn

  21. rogerbrook says:

    Had the same problem as Carolyn Happy New Year Donna!

  22. Sunnyheart says:

    Breathtaking photos and priceless information- thank you for sharing! Although I’ve been on the lookout for awhile now, I have yet to actually spot a Bald Eagle in the wild. At least now, maybe I’ll know what to look for. 🙂 Amazing experience!

  23. Loving these action shots of the different eagles…young and old. Interesting but understandable why photographers choose to shoot the younger eagles…what a treat to see them fight and steal food. Nature is such a delight and better show than anything on TV.

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