To refresh your memory, here is the photo from January’s Bird Quiz. It was taken in southeast Colorado during the month of January. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
This might be an unconventional point of view, but all too often, it’s the only one we get! I often wish field guides would include a rear view illustration. Happily, in this case, we don’t really need to see the rest of the bird to identify it.
The general appearance of the bird, its large size, and its powerful legs and talons tell us that this is a bird of prey. That’s where we’ll start.
Sometimes it’s easier to figure out what the bird is not. We’re limited by the time of day and fact that the photo was taken in mid-winter. The only diurnal raptors in Colorado in January are the Northern Harrier, the three accipiters (Cooper’s, Sharp-shinned, and Northern Goshawk, three buteos (Red-tailed, Rough-legged, and Ferruginous Hawks), Golden and Bald Eagles, and various falcons. It’s a long list, but we’ve already eliminated half the birds in the field guide.
While we really don’t have much sense of scale, we know that those branches had been supporting the bird a moment earlier. Therefore, they can’t be mere twigs. With that in mind, it’s probable that this is a relatively large raptor. Also, the wings are wide and sturdy, not long and pointed. That eliminates falcons. Ferruginous Hawks also have narrow, long wings, so cross that one off as well.
We have a clear view of the legs. They lack feathery pantaloons, so it’s not a Rough-legged Hawk. The upper leg feathers are white, so it’s not an eagle.
We’ve now narrowed the list down to six birds—a Northern Harrier, an accipiter, or a Red-tailed or Ferruginous Hawk. It’s time to look at the colors and pattern on the tail and wings.
Ferruginous Hawks usually have reddish legs; you can see the red V-shape against their very light body as they fly overhead. However, juveniles have white feathers. Could it be a juvenile? Well, they also have very light-to-white tails. This bird has faint, reddish brown bars on its tail. It’s not a Ferruginous Hawk.
How about a Harrier? They have proportionately long tails, distinctive black wing tips, and the females have easily seen brown barring on the underside of their wings. It’s not a Harrier.
Adult Goshawks have gray wings, while juveniles, and Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, also have strong dark stripes patterning their wings. The wings of the bird in the photo are white. Two dark marks are visible: a bar on the leading edge and a comma across the wrist. Only the flight feathers are barred.
If you are familiar with raptor identification, you would have noticed the dash-and-comma markings right off the bat. There’s only one species with these field marks. In fact, it’s the most easily recognized diagnostic feature. It’s easy to remember—Red-tailed Hawks are the species most likely to be seen in urban and suburban areas. I imagine them flying through the smoggy air, getting the leading edge of their wings dirty!
Red-tailed hawks are very variable—some are extra light and some are extra dark, but you can usually make out the dash-and-comma marking, even in these extreme forms.
Wait, you might say, what about the red tail? This bird doesn’t seem to have one! That’s because young Red-tails don’t yet have a red tail. While easy to see, the red tail is not the best feature to look for.
Red-tailed Hawks are easy to find, and usually easy to identify. If it’s on a light post, it’s probably a Red-tail. If it has a light V-marking on its back, it’s probably a Red-tail. And if it has a dark dash-and-comma against a lighter background, it’s definitely a Red-tail.