Red-tail tip for Hawk Watchers

posted by Jerry Liguori at
on Friday, September 13, 2013 

It is mid-September and hawk migration is nearly in full swing! At every migration site, raptors pass overhead in a glide and identifying them on shape is a necessary skill. Red-tailed Hawks are blocky-winged and the primaries jut out from the trailing edge slightly in a shallow glide and a bit more in a steep glide. But did you know that juveniles exhibit longer wings and longer tails than adults? This is very useful information when telling the two ages apart in flight. Check out the picture below of the juvenile Red-tail on the left and the adult on the right, notice the primaries sticking further out on the juvenile, and the wings appear slimmer overall. You can also see the translucent primaries of the juvenile (the adult has pale outer primaries but that is a trick of the lighting in this particular instance - not retained juvenile feathers). Either way, this example shows the difference in shape, and also the difference in color. When seen from below, juveniles appear a simple black and whitish, adults have a pale orangey wash underneath and sometimes darker flight feathers that are often visible even at high altitudes.

Of course, some adults are more colorful than others, and some Red-tails are longer-winged than others by nature, so beware of ageing Red-tails by shape if you haven't practiced it. But use these traits when you feel comfortable, because they are deadly accurate once you "get it.'
Anonymous Derek Lyon said...

One of the hardest IDs for me at a hawkwatch is on an overcast day when only the silhouette is visible. Where I usually am, we see lots of boreal RTs that are more variable in size than normal eastern RTs and when only the silhouette is visible they can be very similar to Red Shouldered Hawks.

September 13, 2013 at 7:49 PM  
Anonymous Ron Dudley said...

Some more very valuable tips, Jerry - thank you. I could have used some of them earlier this week in Montana.

September 14, 2013 at 5:15 AM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

I hear ya both, thanks for the comments

September 14, 2013 at 7:03 AM  
Blogger Mia McPherson said...

Coming to your blog is always educational Jerry!

September 14, 2013 at 7:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK - This is a good article for this question since people will have red-tails on their minds. I have to ask this to get some feedback from more experienced birders.

A couple of days ago I thought I saw a very dark RTHA in NE Ohio in the Cuyahoga Valley. It was clear sunny day with a few clouds. Good visibility. The dark hawk was flying with another RTHA with normal colors near the old Canal where I have seen red-tails regularly.

I watched the two large birds flying over some treetops fairly close by for about 15 minutes before they perched in the trees where I couldn't find them. I got to view the hawks from below and behind. Both had the reddish tails. But, the dark hawk was dark underneath its tail and belly where it normally would be light beige with a chest band. I actually lowered my binoculars and blinked and shook my head because the hawk was so dark. I have never seen anything like this.

Have there been dark red-tails in the east? I know they are out west and up into Alaska. I was frustrated when I saw the two hawks. My little point-and-shoot camera couldn't capture a photo of them. And, without a decent photo, a sighting of a dark red-tail out east is probably suspect. But, I have done a volunteer raptor nest survey for the past four years. I have seen a lot of hawks. I don't go out looking for something out of the ordinary like this for attention. But, I did see this dark hawk.

I don't know what else this could have been. No other hawks are dark all over like this with the reddish tail. And, it was flying with another RTHA. There were turkey vultures nearby. And, I have seen red-shouldered, Coops and even a resident peregrine falcon in this area. But, none of them would look like this.

I made a post to a local bird news web page. I typed up the description three times and discarded it before finally posting it. I finally decided that it was worth posting in the hope that someone else would see it and maybe get a photo. Some of the local birders do know me; and, they know I wouldn't make something like this up.

Could this have been a migrant from the west? I have heard that hawks are migrating now. We have had unusual wanderers from other parts in NE Ohio: We had a purple gallinule a few years ago. We have had varied thrushes. Last year there was an Asian gull on Lake Erie. So, a western dark red-tail is feasible, isn't it?

Ken Andrews
Maple Heights, Ohio

September 14, 2013 at 11:50 AM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

Hi Ken

Yes there are several dark-morph Red-tail sightings every year in the East, and your description sounds solid. But I can't of course confirm what you saw, only you can. So if you are positive that's what it was, I see no reason at all to doubt it!

September 14, 2013 at 1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jerry. I couldn't find anything searching online about dark red-tails in the east. I sent a message to Hawk Mountain and a local naturalist to try to get some information on dark red-tails in the east. Birds - Gotta love 'em. You never know what you're going to see next.


September 15, 2013 at 11:23 AM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

Hi Ken:

There are lots of sightings and photos over the years, but still an uncommon occurrence. Good luck with your search and info gathering.


September 16, 2013 at 7:16 AM  
Anonymous Dave Morrison said...

When I squint my eyes I can really see the color difference of the 2 birds, this could be helpful in the field! Thank you, I love your blog.

September 19, 2013 at 8:30 AM  
Anonymous Hatem Gomaa said...

Question for you, Jerry: Being that almost all diurnal raptors (that I know of anyway), have 12 tail feathers, and that being an even number and there is a center feather, that means one side has 5 and the other has 6. Looking at these 12 tail feathers from the back (so center feather is completely exposed, which side has the 5 and which has the 6? Or do they vary? Or are they commonly on one respective side but occasionally differ?

November 15, 2013 at 5:47 AM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

There's no center feather, just 6 on each side, the two centers are referred to as the "deck" feathers, I'm sure you know that already but for others who may have not heard the term. Some raptors caught in-hand have had 14 tail feathers...oddly. Just an anomally I guess.

November 15, 2013 at 7:21 AM  
Anonymous H.Gomaa said...

Actually, I did not know that, about the deck feathers and I always thought that there is a center feather because most of the time when the tail is folded or even fanned, there's that one feather in the center (because it's completely exposed) and the others step off to each side. That makes a lot of sense that there would be two centered because that's what led me to the question. Sometimes that one feather, because it's completely exposed looks like it's the center one and that creates the uneven count on each side. You learn something every day! Thx very much!

November 15, 2013 at 7:39 AM  
Anonymous Hatem Gomaa said...

what makes these particular birds here any different than darker versions of Eastern Red Tails?

Those two birds are very similar to most darker eastern ones (by darker I mean the ones than aren't very pale since many eastern red-tails are pretty pale by comparison to western ones)? They have the dark head, the heavily streaked belly band and they also lack of dark bands on the upper tail. The pale reddish/pinkish of the under tail is also identical. The only thing I notice that really stands out is the white throat patch is more distinct on easterns, but it seems to be quite prominent in some of the lighter western juvies but not the adults. And perhaps the slightly heavier barring on the flank feathers and maybe on the under-tail coverts. But I've seen some eastern red tails that do have quite a bit of those markings as well. So I'm curious how you would differentiate these particular western red tails with the darker eastern ones.

November 17, 2013 at 12:27 PM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

Hello Hatem -- Funny you should ask, I just finished an article on heavily marked Eastern Red-tails, or what we call Canadian borealis (or northern borealis), and what has been proposed as its own race called B. jamaicenis abieticola, of which it might very well be. There is a section on telling them from Westerns. Let me be clear however, there is overlap (especially juveniles), and telling every Red-tail to race is impossible regardless of how well-versed one is on red-tail plumages.

The birds you point out nest in Utah, but what makes them Western by plumage is the colorful undersides, barred bellybands (one bird), dark or streaky throats combined with broad patagials for fairly lightly marked birds, rufous leggings, and the topsides show less mottling than borealis. It is a combination of traits that helps tell these more lightly marked Westerns (and there are plenty of them out there). One key is, a borealis with that faint of a bellyband would likely be faintly marked elsewhere and have a pale throat. But regardless, the variation is immense as you know.

And, it is a much more loaded question that that and requires an article!!!!

November 17, 2013 at 3:21 PM  
Anonymous Hatem Gomaa said...

Thanks, Jerry. Great stuff as usual. Funny, we hardly use the term "borealis" here, probably because our "selection" of red tails is quite limited to the eastern race that we just call them red tails! Certainly makes us envious of you western folks, that's for sure.

Anyway, could you kindly point me to that article you wrote? Is in on this blog or a separate publication?

Also, speaking of Canadian borealis, did the Canadians adopt the red tail as their official national bird? I remember hearing it was on a petition a few years ago, battling it out with the Canada goose which wasn't really fairing well at the time, and thankfully so! Kinda reminds me of Benny Franklin wishing the wild turkey would be the US' symbol instead of the bald eagle. Good thing they didn't listen to him! What's wrong with that guy? :)

November 17, 2013 at 7:17 PM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

The abieticola article is not published yet, but when it gets published it will be available as a PDF.

Not sure about Canada, but that would be an awesome bird as a national symbol!

November 17, 2013 at 7:53 PM  
Blogger Jon Ruddy said...

Hi Jerry,

Great blog here. I have been VERY interested in abieticola Red-tailed Hawks for about three weeks now. A friend and I encountered a "Northern" Red-tailed in Prince Edward County three weeks ago; since then, this recognizable form has really fascinated me.

I have taken photos of what I believe to be a light morph Western Red-tailed, and not an abieticola Red-tailed. I will attach my blog URL here:

The latest blog title reads: "Ottawa: Western Red-tailed Hawk"

I would be indebted to you if you wouldn't mind taking a minute or two to look at the images and share your insights.


December 3, 2013 at 12:47 PM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

Hi Jon

That's exactly what your bird is....abieticola. The bellyband and overall color fit perfectly. Glad you found my blog, I am working (with Brian Sullivan) on getting an abieticola article published soon

December 3, 2013 at 1:50 PM  
Blogger Jon Ruddy said...

Hi Jerry,

Excellent, thanks for taking a look at my photos. I see you put together a paper (2001) on the pitfalls of identifying light morph Red-taileds to subspecies level. Is this paper available as a PDF?

Many thanks,

December 3, 2013 at 6:22 PM  

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