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Or:  Raptor ID Made Easy Easier.


Let's back up a step:  This is a redtail, aka Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).  It is one of the most common, widespread raptors in North America; its breeding range is pretty much all of the lower 48, and much of Canada and Alaska.  So if you want to learn to ID hawks, first learn the one you've got the best chance of seeing:

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk - note the not-red tail.  Also, note how far down the tail those wings come.

It's a big bird that's brown on the back and most have various mixes of brown and cream on the front (more on that in a bit).  Redtails are part of the Buteo family, soaring hawks that focus mostly on mammals, reptiles and birds on the ground - but they will take birds in flight or anything else they can sink their talons into.  Adults have bright rusty red tails, from which the species got its name.  Juveniles' tails have alternating bands of light and dark brown.  Sometimes it's hard to see the color when you're looking at the back of a perched redtail, because its wings may cover much of the tail (wingtips are roughly at the tail tip).

Adult tail above, juvenile tail below.  The adult's tail is more heavily marked than you'd normally see - the bird at the top of the

A few fine details which come in handy for separating other species:  Redtails have a dark mark that you can see at the leading edge of the wing when it's flying - a "patagial" mark (because that part of the wing is called the patagium).  No other North American hawk has that mark, so if you can see it, you have sealed your ID.  Also, juvenile redtails have yellow eyes; adults have brown eyes.

Once you know this common hawk, it's going to make it much easier to identify all the rest.

A pair of adult redtails.  This shows how color, size and shape can be affected by angles and lighting.  That's why it's important to watch the birds for as long as you can to make sure you're really seeing what you think you're seeing.  (Also, note the patagial mark nicely illuminated on the leading edge of the lower bird's wings.)

Yikes... this got real long, real fast.  So I'm going to split it into a few parts.  Today will be some general sorting into families, along with a bit of buteo ID.
Here's another thing to keep in mind for IDing hawks or any other bird - watch it for a while before you go for your field guide.  Observe as much as possible while the bird is there; you lose observation time while you're thumbing through a book.

Power poles give a sense of size for these perched birds.

So you see a hawk.  How big is it?  Pretty big - like maybe the size of a raven (or a chicken)?  Big, but more like crow size?  Pigeon-size?  Jay-size?  A word of caution - size is much easier to gauge on a perched bird.  You've got a point of reference with the power pole or tree branch or fence post.  Size is much harder to determine on a bird in the sky. Still, there are a few things that can help - maybe there are other birds to compare to.  Also the wing flap can be a clue - smaller wings can beat faster than huge wings, but remember that small birds sometimes soar on languid wings, and some bigger birds like peregrines have a pretty snappy beat.

ospr rtha_0117
A nice chance to compare wing shapes:  Osprey (very long, somewhat narrow and tapered) gets aggro on a redtail (long and broad, which has strayed too close to its nest.

The important thing to look at:  the wings (and the tail).  If the bird is flying, look at the shape - are they long and pointy, shorter and round or broad and flat?  The shape depends a bit on what type of flying it's doing, flapping or soaring or gliding (when raptors glide, they pull their wings back slightly and can look pointier than usual), but if you watch for a bit, you should be able to get an good idea.  If the bird is perched, can you see how far down the tail the wings go?

Okay, back to our redtail and the hawk you're trying to ID.  What do those wings tell you?  As you can see in the photo below, redtails have long, wide wings - just the thing for a bird that soars while looking for ground-based prey.  You may see the bird doing large, lazy circles with barely a wing-flap, or perhaps just hanging in one place in the updraft of a ridge or hillside, looking like a living kite with no string attached.  The large, wide wings allow them to stay aloft with minimal effort.

This is typical of the buteos - the family of hawks that includes redtails, and also Red-shouldered, Broad-winged, Swainson's, Ferruginous, and Rough-legged Hawks.  Others in the family with a more limited range in the US include Short-tailed, White-tailed, Harris', Black, Grey and Zone-tailed Hawks, all found along the southern edge of the US.  Other large, soaring birds with broad wings are the eagles and vultures/condors.


Some hawks have shorter, rounder wings and longer tails.  This allows them to maneuver through vegetation as they chase birds in flight.  You might see them soaring to catch thermals, especially on migration, but if they're on the hunt, they're actively on the wing.  These are the accipiters, a family that includes two of our most common backyard hunters: Sharp-shinned Hawks (slightly larger than a jay) and Cooper's Hawks (almost crow-sized).  The third member of their family in North America is the Goshawk, a bird of deep woods in the north and at high elevations; they are almost redtail-sized.

These short, rounded wings help accipiters thread their way through obstacles.

coha perched
Note that this Cooper's Hawk's wings only come about half way down her tail, if that. This is a really useful clue for separating the accipiters from most other hawks.

I previously posted a diary covering identification of accipiters (tricky even for experienced birders), and some other smaller hawks likely to show up in backyards.  Rather than go over all that material here, I'll just point you in that direction (the link opens in a new window so you don't lose your place here).

Are the wings pointed?  Almost all the hawks will occasionally look pointy-winged, especially when they're going into a steep glide.  But if the bird is flapping its wings and they look pointed, it is most likely a falcon or a kite.  Falcons can be large (peregrines and, in the far north, gyrfalcons), medium (prairie falcons and some male peregrines) or small (merlins and kestrels).  Kites are large (Hook-billed, Snail, and Swallow-tailed) or medium sized birds (White-tailed and Mississippi Kite).  I'll do a diary on the pointy-winged birds a little later, but do make note of the wing shape and some essential differences.  Because many people have gotten to know peregrines through nest cams, it can be tempting to ID other hawks as juvenile peregrines based on things like brown streaky breasts, scalloped backs, and a tendency to eat birds.  Here a few quick pointers to separate the falcons from the others.

pf-pefa juv m 2
Note the dark brown (almost black) eye - other brown & streaky young birds  will have a yellow eye or perhaps a light brown eye.  Also, falcons have the distinct "mustache" mark - other birds may have a bit of a malar stripe along the cheek, chin, but it won't be as defined as in a falcon.

This peregrine is in a favored habitat - rocky coast.  They like wide open spaces to hunt, so they can overtake their prey in bursts of speed where the prey has no cover (like beaches and mudflats) or swoop from above (cliffs and tall buildings/bridges).  Note that the wings are very long - at the tail tip or beyond.

Others - harrier, osprey - large, long winged.  Harrier (aka marsh hawk) white rump patch, hunts by circling low and dropping down on prey.  Osprey dives into water and catches fish with feet. (more to come)

Okay, so you've figured out that your hawk is probably a buteo.  But which one?  Now it's time to consider some field marks.  But of course, they can't make it easy for you.  One thing about buteos is that many of the species have multiple color morphs - lighter and darker versions of the same bird.  These are not the same as subspecies - the different color morphs live and breed in the same areas, and commonly breed with each other.  Redtails have an insane variety of color morphs and plumage variations, especially in the west.  Some of the useful field marks for separating buteos are obscured on dark morph birds, which complicates things.  I'm not going to get into too much discussion of dark morphs here, but knowing that they exist and knowing other aspects of the birds' behavior can help you ID even the dark ones.  So, here are some ID tips for the other buteos:

Red-shouldered Hawk is slightly smaller than a redtail, and is most easily identified by the checkered pattern on wings/tail as seen on a perched bird, or the bold stripes visible in flight (the folded stripes make the checkerboard).  The breast pattern also helps separate them - on a juvenile, it's a very blotchy brown that is pretty much the same on both breast and belly (redtails with streaky breasts usually have a darker or solid belly); adults have rusty barring (which blurs into almost solid rusty color on western birds).  The red shoulders that give the bird its name are not always visible, and are less pronounced on juveniles than adults.  Another good way to tell a juvenile red shoulder from a juvenile redtail is eye color - shoulders have brown eyes, tails have yellow or very pale brown eyes.  There are no color morphs of redshoulders, but there are three subspecies - western (darkest colors, rich red breast - see my avatar for example), eastern (medium colors, rusty barred breast with cream) and Florida (palest).

rsha 11 23 04_0829
Checkered pattern on perched juv

Bold stripes in flight (wing shape odd because of molt)

Broad-winged Hawk is a smaller buteo, extremely numerous in the east, but also seen on the west coast (especially this fall).  My favorite description is that the best field mark is that they have no field marks.  They have very plain, unmarked wings, other than a dark trailing edge.  The other good description is that they look like a miniature redtail - especially the juveniles.  If you can't get a sense of size, the main thing to look for is the patagial mark (or lack thereof, which would make it a broadwing).  Juveniles have the same sort of brown-banded tail as juvenile redtails, but adults have a tail with wide bold bars.  The juveniles also have brown eyes, in contrast with the yellow eyes of juvenile redtails.  Broadwings also have a dark morph, found mostly at the western end of their range.  In the east, these birds migrate in huge flocks, and can form enormous kettles of thousands of birds.


By a real stroke of luck, GGRO banded a redshoulder (left) and broadwing (right), both juveniles, within a few minutes of each other a few weeks back, allowing for some great comparison shots.  You can see the heavy markings of the red shoulder contrasted with the light markings of the broadwing.  Both birds also show a bit of a malar stripe, extending from the back of the mouth, but you can see it's nothing near as prominent as the falcon's mustache mark above.  If you click on these comparison shots, you can find much larger versions, which will let you really study the details.  (photo by Mike Armer, used with permission)


From the back, you can get a good sense of the difference in size between the redshoulder and the smaller broadwing.  Also, note how the tail pattern on the broadwing is similar to that of a juvenile redtail.  As adults, broadwings have tails with bold black and white stripes, more like a red-shoulder.  (photo by Mike Armer, used with permission)

Swainson's Hawk is species that's fairly widespread west of the Mississippi, though not along the coast.  They are a fairly large hawk, but insects make up a large part of their diet (in South America, where they winter, their name means "the hawk that eats the locusts").  One of the distinguishing features of this species in flight is the "reverse" color pattern on wings - the primary and secondary flight feathers (the trailing edge of the wing) are dark when seen from below vs. most buteo's flight feathers which are either light, or light with some stripes.  The wings are very long and tapered, something suited to the long distance migrations they make.  Like redtails, Swainson's hawks have both rufous and dark morphs.  Some things that will help you distinguish them are the "bibs" that most adults show - a darker throat extending down to the upper breast - and often a bit of white in the face, at the forehead.  Like broadwings, they are sometimes seen in huge flocks on migration.  

ab swha morphs
Light and dark morph together - reverse wing pattern especially visible on light morph, but also on dark morph; if it was a dark morph redtail, the flight feathers would be lighter and contrast with the dark underwing coverts (the feathers on the front half of the wing).  Also note the light undertail coverts (the feathers that cover the base of the tail) - on dark morphs of other buteos, these would be as dark as the rest of the body.

Perched dark morph shows the very long wings of Swainson's - longer than other buteos, extending past the tip of the tail.

Ferruginous Hawk is a large western buteo of the Great Plains and Great Basin.  They spend a lot of their time in treeless areas, even nesting on the ground in many cases.  They specialize in ground squirrels and gophers, and ranchland can be a good place to see them.  Your first impression will probably be of a very white bird if you're seeing the front, and a very rusty bird if you're seeing the back (ferruginous refers to the rusted-iron color).  Their tails are usually mostly white with just a bit of color at the tip, but it won't be the extensive, solid red that you expect for a redtail.  One distinctive feature (shared with Rough-legged Hawks) is that their legs are feathered all the way down to the foot.  If you see a "shinbone" on a hawk, it's not a ferruginous or roughie.  Juvenile birds have grey "leggings" (flank feathers and leg feathers) and adults have rusty leggings. One other feature that is often very visible is the bird's enormous gape - their mouths open really wide to accommodate the larger prey that they eat.  The back of a ferrug's mouth goes back so far that it often lines up with the back of the eye.  Ferruginous Hawks have a dark morph, and the feathered legs and huge mouth are one way to help tell them from redtails (note that they can be confused with golden eagles, though...)

1872 feha close
You'll see rusty colors on a red shoulder's shoulder or front, and some rusty tones on the breast of some redtails... but you'll only see a rusty back like this on a ferruginous.  Also note the amount of white in the tail.

kitundu feha 7221
You can even see the large gape on a bird in flight, as with this one.  The rusty leggings tell you that it's an adult bird.  The general gorgeousness tells you it's a ferrug.  :-) (photo by Walter Kitundu - used with permission)

Roughie:  3 points of dark (belly, carpals), feathered tarsus, tiny feet and bill, adults can be sexed by tail pattern; dark morph

UPDATE:  Sorry, this diary was a work in progress when I took a bad spill and thought I broke my foot.  After a few hours in the ER, I found out that it was only a bad sprain, but then spent most of the rest of the day on my back with my foot elevated... hard to type.  More was completed via updates, but now that the day is done, the rest will have to wait for a later diary... sorry.

Originally posted to lineatus on Sun Oct 14, 2012 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science, J Town, and Birds and Birdwatching.

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