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Identifying Bald Eagles, Ravens, Crows, Turkey Vultures by Wing Pattern

Updated on October 2, 2016
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Science, nature and the environment, with regard to human impact, are subjects to which Chris applies his passions for research and writing.

Bald Eagle, Madeline Island, Wisconsin

Apostle Islands, Lake Superior, Northern Wisconsin
Apostle Islands, Lake Superior, Northern Wisconsin | Source

Some Facts About Bald Eagles

I have lived in northern Michigan for twenty-nine years. It has been my joy to observe the rebounding of the Bald Eagle population firsthand. Today, I can go to my favorite natural areas and am almost guaranteed to see at least one Bald Eagle. Often I see two or more.

My son and I were kayaking on a small inland lake two years ago. We saw a large bird across the lake standing on a dead, fallen tree. We proceeded slowly and quietly. We came about one hundred feet from the bird and stopped. By then we knew it was an immature Bald Eagle. It did not yet have the white head and tail. Suddenly, but quietly, my son got my attention and pointed. I followed his direction and saw a mature eagle in a tree, then another, and another. I looked up and saw, directly above us, four more Bald Eagles. Seeing seven bald eagles at one time is still a record for me.

It is estimated that in the 1700s there were between 300,000 and 500,000 Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states. Over the years, due to hunting and pesticides, the population dwindled to an all time low of 500 nesting pairs.

DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, is a pesticide that was developed in the 1940s and used by the military to fight malaria, typhus, body lice and bubonic plague. DDT was later used in agriculture, but was banned in 1972 in the United States. The chemical was concentrated in animals at the top of the food chain. DDT caused Bald Eagles to produce eggs with extremely thin shells that could not bear the weight of the incubating parent. Many broke or simply never hatched.

By 1978, Bald Eagles were officially considered an endangered species. With the protection which that designation provided, along with the banning of DDT, the Bald Eagle population rebounded so that in 1995 they were removed from the Endangered Species list and considered a threatened species.

Today there are an estimated 70,000 Bald Eagles in The United States, and Canada. While there is much sadness in that story, there is also a great deal of joy and hope.

Classic soaring shape of the Bald Eagle with Leading edge of wings straight and a plank like look to the wingspan
Classic soaring shape of the Bald Eagle with Leading edge of wings straight and a plank like look to the wingspan | Source

The Eagle and the Turkey Vulture (Click on thumbnails)

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Bald Eagle soars with wings flatThe Turkey Vulture soars with wing tips pulled upward, creating a "cupped" shape
The Bald Eagle soars with wings flat
The Bald Eagle soars with wings flat | Source
The Turkey Vulture soars with wing tips pulled upward, creating a "cupped" shape
The Turkey Vulture soars with wing tips pulled upward, creating a "cupped" shape | Source

Silhouettes of Large Birds

Turkey Vulture- Bent leading edge of wings; long feathers on wing tips
Turkey Vulture- Bent leading edge of wings; long feathers on wing tips | Source
Raven- Fanned out, wedge shaped tail feathers
Raven- Fanned out, wedge shaped tail feathers | Source
Crow- Tail is smaller than Raven, not wedge shaped; Long feathers on wing tips; feathery trailing edge of wings
Crow- Tail is smaller than Raven, not wedge shaped; Long feathers on wing tips; feathery trailing edge of wings | Source
Red Tailed Hawk- Long narrow tail; Bent leading edge of wings
Red Tailed Hawk- Long narrow tail; Bent leading edge of wings | Source
Bald Eagle- Flat, plank like look to the wing pattern; Straight leading edge of the wing
Bald Eagle- Flat, plank like look to the wing pattern; Straight leading edge of the wing | Source

Identifying Large Birds by Silhouette

Have you ever seen a large bird flying above you, and wondered if it might be a Bald Eagle? Most of us need to be close enough to these magnificent birds to observe their white heads and tails. There is another way to identify birds other than by color. A friend who has a bit of experience with raptors, tells me that the best way to learn to identify these large birds is by their wing pattern or silhouette, when they are soaring.

A bird soars when it stops flapping its wings and spreads them to catch the wind, thereby staying aloft. This is the best time to identify the wing pattern as it is silhouetted against the sky.

There are a few other large birds which also soar, so we need to be able to tell the difference. I will use the species of my area as an example. You might need to learn the wing pattern of a species that is particular to your area.

The large birds I see in northern Michigan skies which might be confused with Bald Eagles are Turkey Vultures, Crows, Ravens and Red Tailed Hawks, It might seem that it would be easy to discern crows, ravens and hawks from a Bald Eagle, but when these birds are flying high in the sky, with nothing else to provide perspective, it can be difficult to tell.

Comparisons of Wing and Tail Shapes of Bald Eagles, Turkey Vultures, Ravens, Crows and Red Tailed Hawks

Examples of Large Birds
Wing Shape
Tail Shape
Bald Eagle
View from below-straight on front and back; squared off at ends. Shape from front view-flat
Fan shape. Proportionately shorter than other large birds.
Turkey Vulture
View from below-Curved leading edge; Long finger-like feathers at ends. Shape from front view-Wing bows downward to the middle and back up at ends.
Long and narrow. Longer than Bald Eagle's
Raven
View from below-bowed forward at middle then tapers back at ends. Long feathers at ends are straight out
Broad, fan shaped.
Crow
View from below-long feathers at ends taper back
Narrow, longer than Raven's
Red Tailed Hawks
View from below-bows out to middle and back toward end. Back follows contour of front.
Very long and narrow

Avoid Using Color as the Only Means of Identifying Bald Eagles and Other Birds.

As you attempt to learn to identify these large birds, try to get away from using color as the primary means of identification. Bald Eagles pass through a four year period during which they change dramatically. If you are looking only for a white head and tail, you will likely misidentify the younger birds.

In their first year, the Bald Eagle is very dark brown. Over the next three or four years it will slowly lighten in color and the underside will be a mottled brown and white or white with brown flecks. In years four and five, the characteristic white head and tail develop.

So you can see how coloring alone might lead you astray when identifying these birds. The shape of the bird is a more trustworthy method and can be verified somewhat if the bird comes close enough for you to observe its coloring.

Immature Bald Eagle and Mature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle
Immature Bald Eagle | Source
Mature Bald Eagle
Mature Bald Eagle | Source

I hope this gives you a little more knowledge to draw from as you watch the skies and observe these beautiful, majestic creatures called Bald Eagles.

In the comments section, let us know where you live and if you have seen an increase in the number of Bald Eagles in your region.

Bald Eagle Sighting Poll

Have you noticed an increase in Bald Eagle sightings in your area?

See results

Recorded Decorah, Iowa Eagle Nest Cam; Video 4/4/15

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    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 9 months ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Mudra, I am very sorry I missed your comment and question. Look closely at the silhouettes in the article. Ravens are much smaller, but that is difficult to see in the sky.The shape of the wings and how the wings are used are also keys to correctly identifying these birds. Both the bald eagle and the raven soar, so you will need to practice using the wing shape. That is the most trustworthy method.

    • profile image

      Mudra 10 months ago

      I LOVE my eagles in the San juans...(and one year we had a Golden eagle very near to our cabin!, with the "art arf arf sound near the nest) but I also have 2 lovely Russian Blue cats that I take out in the field...and often the immature Eagles look so much like the Ravens ..it's hard to know if the cats are safe or not..I'm always scooping them up when I'm not sure who it is above!!! any ideas how to be more sure? I have many bird apps, but I'm afraid to ID the wrong bird and lose my Gurlz!! Any more ideas on IDs??

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 18 months ago from Maple City, Michigan

      onegandolf1, Thank you for reading this article and for telling about your close encounter with a Bald eagle. That was an exciting story, and I'm happy to have it included in my comments section. I spent 18 months in Pennsylvania from2014-15. I was up in the Water Gap area many times. The Delaware River is a haven for Bald eagles.

    • profile image

      onegandolf1 18 months ago

      I should probably mention my "Close Encounter". While taking my dogs for a walk around "The Plantation" I heard what I assumed was a spooked Deer (this is "White Tail Central", so that's not at all uncommon. There was no sign of a Deer, however.

      Then I heard it again and realized that the noise was coming from above me in a Cherry Tree. I looked up and was startled to see what I initially (until I saw the Yellow Beak and White head (and ENORMOUS Feet!!!).

      He must have decided that it was time to leave (although subsequent meetings have proven that they aren't all that "skittish"). When he managed to unfold those wings (he was on a limb about 10 ft over my head), there was nothing in my Field of Vision that wasn't Feathered. When he took off (being as large as he was), he probably "fell" 2-3 ft. before those enormous wings "bit air"The wings were so big-and , he was so close to me I could feel the air that he was pushing down on my face !!!

      I about sh*t my pants .

    • profile image

      0negandolf1 18 months ago

      I live in N.W. P.A. (right where it angles up to Lake Erie. The increase here has been very dramatic I know of two (there was three but the limb that one was on broke off) within five miles of my house, plus one 15 miles away.

    • Rob Lattin profile image

      Rob Lattin 3 years ago from Born in Chicago, now I'm in Mostly Michigan

      Love your hub! I just saw it now after I had written mine a while back. When I lived in Detroit and travelled up to Port Huron or Gaylord, I never saw a single eagle so reading your hub was an eye opener. I am now in the Quad Cities and always debate with people about the turkey vultures. Having the silhouettes of the birds helps clarify which is which and also helps me win arguments. Thanks for a great and complimentary hub.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Hi Kathi, They are magnificent birds and we are so fortunate to see their numbers revived. Thanks for visiting HubPages.

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      Kathi Martin 4 years ago

      Living in Western Maryland we have seen many Bald Eagles young and adult in this area. We live in a tri start area to include Pennsylvania and West West Virginia. We have seen the in all three states.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Hi Randi, Eagles are special and an Eagle sighting can be a moving experience. Two days ago I was out on a small lake fishing. I looked up and two Bald Eagles were circling not far above me. I'm sure they wanted me to leave their fish alone. Life gives us those little moments sometimes, just when we need them.

    • btrbell profile image

      Randi Benlulu 4 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Thank you, Chris for this great and informative hub. Birds are not usually my favorite subject but Eagles are pretty awesome. Yesterday when my son and were driving to work, we spotted an Eagle overhead. I don't know how to describe the moment as he soared over the highway but it was amzing! I wish I had seen this hub before so that I could tell you what I saw! Thank you! up+

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Marcy, I am so glad you liked and appreciated my hub. Get out there and start identifying. Thanks for the vote up too.

      Chris

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

      Wow - what great information! I have never known the specific differences in these types of birds (and we have several of them where I live). I like your silhouette images and explanations.

      Voted up!

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      aviannovice, Thank you for taking time to read and comment. When I saw "aviannovice" I thought I should scoot on over to your profile page and see if possibly a bird expert came to pick my hub apart. For an avian novice you certainly have done a lot of writing about birds. haha. I want to get back and read up on Cedar Waxwings. I see them in the spring and fall and think they are beautiful. Thanks for your compliments on my work. That means a lot. I look forward to reading more of your work too.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      This was very well done, with an excellent explanation on how to recognize bird from their wings and tails. I haven't seen any eagles yet in OK, but have been told that there are both Bald and Golden Eagles. In Maine, there were a good many Bald Eagles, duly rebounded from the DDT episode in the late '60s and early 70's.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Fantastic billybuc. My son lives in Portland and regularly gets out to the mountains and coast. He says the same. Thanks for reading once again.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      We have quite a few of them in Washington State; great information about the wing pattern, which I will use next time I'm looking for them. And yes there has been an increase of them lately around here.