What types of eagles can you find in Montana?
Whenever they appear, I make sure to stop and watch these incredible birds of prey. I’m always amazed at their beauty, large size, and astonishing ability to soar at extreme heights! And I’m not alone, as eagles have a special place in many people’s hearts and minds. These majestic birds symbolize many things, such as freedom, courage, honesty, inspiration, victory, and pride.
Unlike other raptors, there are not many eagle species that reside in Montana. In fact, there are only a few species that can be observed on the entire continent.
Below are the TWO eagles that live in Montana!
Make sure to pay attention to the range maps to see which eagles live near you! For each species, I have included a few photographs, along with their most common sounds, to help you identify any birds you are lucky enough to observe.
#1. Bald Eagle
- Haliaeetus leucocephalus
The Bald Eagle is one of the most recognizable birds in the world!
But did you know that the “Bald” portion of their name has nothing to do with not having feathers on their head? As you can clearly see, these eagles have white feathers covering their entire face with no bald spots anywhere. Their name actually stems from an Old English word “piebald,” which means “white patch” and refers to their bright white heads.
While almost everyone knows what a full-grown Bald Eagle looks like, trying to correctly identify juvenile birds is tricky. These eagles don’t get their characteristic white head and dark brown body until they are FIVE YEARS OLD. Until then, these birds have all sorts of different plumages and streaky browns and whites on their bodies. Even their beak changes color! It takes A LOT of practice and experience to identify young Bald Eagles properly!
Bald Eagles are found across Montana!
After almost going extinct in the mid 20th century due to DDT poisoning, these raptors are a true success story. They are most commonly seen around bodies of water.
Bald Eagle Range Map
The reason that Bald Eagles are found around water is that they mostly eat fish! Look for them around marshes, lakes, coasts, and rivers. The BEST areas are forests near large bodies of water that provide good fishing AND tall trees for nesting sites.
Did you know that Bald Eagles build the largest nests in the world?
Their nests start “small,” but eagles add new layers each year. The biggest one EVER found was 10 feet wide (3 meters) and 20 feet tall (6 meters) and weighed in at 3 tons! Bald Eagles would keep adding to their nests each year, but what happens is that the structures get so heavy they eventually fall out of the tree, and the birds have to start over.
Press PLAY above to hear a Bald Eagle!
The Bald Eagle probably doesn’t sound like what you think. If you imagine an intimidating eagle call, then you would be wrong. I think they sound more like a gull, with trills and little whistles. In fact, movie directors are so unimpressed with the sounds a Bald Eagle makes, it’s common for them to use the call of a Red-tailed Hawk instead for dramatic effect!
With unmatched eyesight, it is not at all surprising that Bald Eagles hunt from as high as 10,000 feet (3 km) in the air. Their vision is about eight times better than humans. More importantly, these eagles can see into the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum. This adaptation is helpful because it allows them to see past the reflections on the water’s surface and find fish that would otherwise be invisible in the glare.
Length: 28-40 inches / 70-102 cm
Weight: 6.5-15 lbs / 3-7 kg
Wingspan: 71-91 inches / 1.8-2.3 meters
#2. Golden Eagle
- Aquila chrysaetos
Golden Eagles are incredibly fast and agile, which makes them expert hunters. Where Bald Eagles mostly eat fish, these eagles almost always eat mammals. Their favorite prey includes rabbits, hares, ground squirrels, marmots, and prairie dogs. But these raptors have been known to hunt and kill animals as large as small deer, seals, mountain goats, coyotes, and badgers!
They have even been known to snatch a bear cub for dinner. Talk about bravery (or stupidity?)! 🙂
Golden Eagles are dark brown with gold feathers on the backs of their necks, which is how they got their name. Juvenile birds have white patches on their wings and tails. Immature Bald Eagles and adult Golden Eagles look similar and can be easily confused.
The distinguishing feature between these two birds is that the Bald Eagle doesn’t mind showing a little leg, whereas the Golden Eagle has feathers all the way down to the top of their feet.
These powerful raptors typically mate for life. To impress a female, male birds will pick up a stick or a rock and fly up high, only to drop it. Then the eagle will enter a dive to catch the object again before it hits the ground! Once a pair is together, it’s common for them to hunt cooperatively, where one individual ambushes the prey and drives it towards the second bird to make the kill.
Golden Eagles are known to like cliffs to build their nests on, but also have no problem using trees, observation towers, or nesting platforms. These raptors have even been known to nest on the ground! The most important feature these birds look for when it comes to building a nest is it needs to have a good view of its surroundings.
Golden Eagle Range Map
Golden Eagles are common to see in Montana.
These birds prefer vast open areas such as landscapes that include cliffs, mountains, or hills. You can also spot these birds in grasslands, farmlands, shrublands, arctic tundra, and coniferous woodlands.
These eagles are not extremely noisy, and their calls sound like whistles that are weak and high. Just like Bald Eagles, for such a powerful raptor, you would think Golden Eagles would have a much more intimidating sound!
Length: 26-40 inches / 66-100 cm
Weight: 6.5-16 lbs / 3-7 kg
Wingspan: 71-91 inches / 1.8-2.3 meters
Do you need help identifying eagles?
Here are a few books and resources you can purchase that will assist! (Links below take you to Amazon)
Which eagles have you seen before in Montana?
Leave a comment below!