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Wing Tip : Tail Tip

posted by Jerry Liguori at
on Sunday, December 29, 2013 

This is in regards to a minor aspect of raptor ID. Use wing tip to tail tip ratio on perched birds with CAUTION. It can be helpful at times of course, but is often unreliable for several reasons. Let me re-state that: it can be misleading. There are many factors that make this ID feature variable. Young buteos (especially Red-tails) have longer tails than adults (besides the natural variation in tail length of individuals), birds perch differently in trees than on power poles, or the ground, or on rocks, etc. They also lean forward in the wind, or hold their wings differently than normal when wet, tired, or ready to take off. There are other factors as well, but I'm not going to name all of them.

Anyway, never ID a buteo based on this feature solely, and NEVER EVER identify the race of a Red-tail based on this feature alone…you will be wrong as often as right, and it will have been luck if you are correct anyway!!! Besides, there are way more reliable field marks to use when telling perched birds apart. I'm not saying to never use this trait, its just the very last thing you should look at. I know wing tip to tail tip ratio has been verbalized a million times over the years, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't question it. In fact, question everything you hear or read when it comes to bird ID, because I can tell you with certainty that there are a ton of errors in the literature, and inaccuracies perpetuated out loud by the every-day birder. I tell people all the time, regardless of what I say about raptors, research it for yourself to really understand it or see if its true.

Check out these birds just to note their posture and where the wing tips fall in relation to the tail tip. Especially on the first 3 birds, which are Red-tailed Hawks


 Red-tailed Hawk
 Red-tailed Hawk
 Red-tailed Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
Ferruginous Hawk
 Northern Harrier
 Prairie Falcon
Red-shouldered Hawk
6 Comments:
Anonymous Ben O. said...

I've always wondered how reliable that was, especialt telling the race of a Red-tailed Hawk. I was suspicious that it could be reliable for that.

December 30, 2013 at 6:47 PM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

I know "experts" that can't tell the subspecies of a Red-tail from plumage, so wing tip to tail tip ratio is going to work?

December 31, 2013 at 1:24 PM  
Anonymous Matt Finch said...

Especially since the angle in which you view the hawk at can change the perspective of how long it APPEARS to be. Unreliable indeed. Thanks Jerry for bringing that up!

December 31, 2013 at 4:04 PM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

Definitely Matt, just trying to warn and caution people about stuff that gets perpetuated or misinterpreted

December 31, 2013 at 4:11 PM  
Anonymous Marc Grieco said...

This is the kind of stuff I like to read about, I have always had trouble interpreting the wing length on raptors and gave up on doing it. Knowing it isn't very useful makes me feel better about thinking I just couldn't relate to it.

January 1, 2014 at 1:30 PM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

Thanks for the feedback Marc. There are better field marks to use anyway...

January 1, 2014 at 2:01 PM  

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