Name the hawk

July 7, 2011 • 4:39 am

UPDATE #3:  Peter has taken yet another picture of the hawk engaged in strange behavior that looks like play.  He describes this in this comment below, and I’ve added a photo to the bottom of this post.

UPDATE #2:  I am informed by the bird expert in our department that this is a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii.  Based on this and my reading of the comments, I’ll call it that until convinced otherwise.  Thanks to all for weighing in!

UPDATE: I’ve provided a new picture from Peter below plus his added commentary:

I didn’t imagine that my picture of the hawk in our maple tree would initiate a blizzard of comments!  I wasn’t trying to “stump the WEIT reader” — I just wanted to share the nice photo, but I’m not a birder so I couldn’t tell you what species it is.

For the curious, the picture was taken yesterday, and the hawk resides in the Hawkeye State, Iowa.  Here’s another shot, which shows more of the body.  My guess is it’s a Cooper’s hawk.  It’s likely a juvenile, since there are at least two of them in the neighborhood (who call back and forth constantly), making me think they are nest-mates.

You also asked what kind of camera I used — it’s a Canon SX30IS, which is neither expensive nor fancy, but it has a nice 30x lens and further digital magnification up to the 140x which I used for the first picture.


No, there are no prizes, but neither I nor the alert reader (Peter N) who took this picture knows what this is.  I am 100% sure, though, that within an hour it will be identified.  The reader gives this information:

This is one of a family of hawks (I don’t know what species) that lives in our neighborhood.  I took this picture through my kitchen window this morning — bird was about 60 feet away, on a branch about 30 up.

The reader lives in the United States.


Updated photo by Peter, showing what he described in the comment below.  He adds that “The sinister shadow in the foreground is, of course, our (strictly indoor) cat, Gus, dreaming of what might have been.”


92 thoughts on “Name the hawk

    1. Please add Latin binomials, since “buzzard” may be different birds in different places.


  1. It’d be nice to see a picture of the whole bird, and/or narrow down the location a bit, Jerry.

    1. Sadly, the reader didn’t send other photos, and I am awaiting permission to post the location (I don’t give out that info, or names, without permission). I’ll put stuff up when I get it.

      But surely my biology-savvy readers will be able to ID this from a head shot alone?

      Maybe not . .

    1. I’m thinking not since the sharp-shinned usually has bluish gray coloration on the head and upper parts of the wings and back.

    1. You could be right there – although they tend to have ‘flatter’ heads.

      I’m no US bird expert though (I live in the UK)…

    1. I should add that it looks like an Adult male “Prairie form” kestrel:
      Light blue-gray crown
      Pale face with no distinct pattern
      Streaked breast
      Dark eye with pale eyebrow
      “Prairie form” occurs in Great Plains states and southern Canada

    2. All genus Falco members have perfectly/shockingly round nostrils, so this is not a falcon of any species.
      [I tried to place this reply here, but it ended up farther down the page… where a longer post w/ID can be found]

  2. He looks very much like a red-tailed hawk with whom I had the closest encounter ever last winter.

    When I pulled into my driveway after work, just outside my driver’s window a huge body lifted – he had been camouflaged against my house and preoccupied catching a crow.

    Startled by the car, he lifted and flew straight into a window on the garage door.
    He crashed immediately, but luckily just was stunned. While he was still standing trying to get a handle on what had just happened, I stopped the car and pressed my face against the windshield and froze, so by the time he started looking around, there was no alarming movement to see.

    After turning his head around almost to the back on each side, like an owl, he looked down and noticed the crow was still in his talons, alive.

    Very unhurried and deliberately, he ate it. This hawk was over two feet tall, with what a beak! He came up with nothing but feathers twice, which made me anticipate that he would be tearing off all the feathers and then eating the body.

    Not so. The next beak-ful was a meat chunk covered with feathers, gone with one swallow. Then an entire wing in another deliberate gulp, the head and neck together in the next.

    He ate every bit over a course of about 15 minutes. Lifting away to settle on a nearby low-hanging branch of a century-old cottonwood, he left in the snow nothing but those two initial tufts of feathers.

    Wow. Being eight feet away from that wild beauty feeding free and without fear was panetheros.

    1. Pictures or it didn’t happen 😉

      It’s just not fair, being much better than my hawk scares group of quail, one quail flies into window, hawk has lunch story. Although the quail did hit the window I was looking through. Still its lame in comparison to
      your story.

      1. The hawk you saw came off with lunch without a sore noggin.

        Do you wonder if the hawk will ever be in a similar situation and remember this and attempt to make the result repeatable!

  3. It’s in Genus Buteo I reckon from looking at pics [quote]In the Old World, members of this genus are called “buzzards”, but “hawk” is used in North America. As both terms are ambiguous, buteo is sometimes used instead[/quote]

    The Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) has the same necklace [see THIS pic], but it’s Europe/Asia.

    The Red-shouldered Hawk(Buteo lineatus) maybe ?

  4. Can I send in some pictures of mushrooms and have them identified as well? Or are you anti-mycologian?

  5. Identification of juvenile hawks (which this probably is) is not a trivial task. Picture of the whole bird would help. More data on location would help. Habitat would help.

    Based on the relatively delicate beak, I’d say this is an accipiter. In addition, a hawk nesting in one’s back yard in town would, in large parts of the U.S., be an accipiter. (If the back yard is on a farm, a Buteo might be possible.)

    If it is an accipiter, we need the size. Was the bird about as big as a crow or a bit bigger (Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii)? Or was it more the size of a jay (Sharp-shinned Hawk, A. striatus)? Based on the fact that the photographer realized that these birds are hawks, and considering the likely size of the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) leaves in the photo, I’d bet on Cooper’s, but many things are possible.

  6. All genus Falco members have perfectly/shockingly round nostrils, so this is not a falcon of any species.

    While you might think this close cropping makes for a difficult ID issue, most perched hawk full-images give most advanced beginner to intermediate-level birders ‘fits’.
    The problem here is that there’s not much to tell you here, that is not much to learn, because of the limited info (cropping). So, while I can tell you what it is, I can’t make much of the this as a teachable moment.
    [If the photog would like to send/post a couple more images, I’d be happy to tell more about ‘their bird’.]

    This is a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). Over the last decades, Cooper’s Hawk has become a common backyard bird, throughout the year in both Canada and the US.

    The gray iris is typical for this time of the year for a Coop hatched this summer; it will get quite yellow by late summer, then stay that color for the fall well into spring (then orange-yellow, orange and blood-red, as an adult in a year or so). I mention this, because iris color rules out several of the suggested IDs posted. The streaklets on the upper breast are classic Coop. Plus we have a nice supercillium (present in all three NA Accipters). The lack of a strong malar mark rules out most Buteos. On our Buteo species, the upper breast is either clean or has some thicker, darker markings. The delicate streaking here with the amber background to our left on the upper breast, plus the actual shape of the markings helps with this ID… if you see a lot of hawks in the wild or their images.
    Laws of Birding…

      1. MF:
        Sorry, I missed your question until late in the day.
        [I’ve sent this message to your email account… thanks for the direct question.]

        Beginning at the beginning, the malar mark is the hallmark of the Peregrine Falcon helmet-look — thru and under the eye, on its face. It might be called the ‘fu’ of the fu manchu mustache or a strong sideburn. But it is not just a cheek mark, so much as it is a jawline or extension down the face.

        Given that you kind of know what this feather area is… all Buteo species in NA and Europe-Asia have a strong malar mark. Once you know to look for it: on lightly marked species it draws down the jaw against a pale background. On moderately marked species/plumages it stands out in contrast against its background as nearly black. Of course, on dark morph or heavily marked birds it is there, but hard to pick out.

        Accipiter species (world) have an auricular patch that varies in darkness, but not extending below and forward to the area of the malar mark.

        Now, in North America, the Cooper’s Hawk has the palest auricular patch of any of the three species (quickly/therefore not a Buteo in the image above). Buteo buteo, the basic Eurasian Buteo species has a strong, dark brown to black, descending malar against a field of pale to medium brown. (Accipter species from the British Isles fit here too: by not having a malar mark, but the auricular patch in some strength.)

        As is often the case, backyard image of a Peregrine turns almost always into some Buteo when the image is sent along, because the malar mark is something striking to the birder. While I separate the two genera quickly, even in a head shot, by the Accipiter spp. lack of this feature, and conversely the Buteo having it.

    1. One little behavioral note about backyard Cooper’s Hawks: my brother Paul Jost in Wisconsin has several times observed them flushing small birds into his living room window. The flushed bird bounces off the window and falls to the ground, stunned, and the hawk grabs it. My brother felt this was purposeful behavior on the part of the hawk.

      1. Thanks, but I need to add that now that I see the whole bird better in the tree, a smaller hawk may be correct.

        I still keep and eye out for that hawk when I’m in that neighborhood.

  7. I’ve provided a new picture of the bird below, one that shows the body. I’ll be gone for a couple of hours, but I expect, when I return, to have this bird fully and accurately identified!

    1. This is a classic Coop from the overall breast pattern, now revealed: top to bottom the fine streaking, composed of attenuated teardrops, populates the upper breast and becomes noticeably less dense and individually finer as your eye moves to the lower belly. All our Accipiter species have a supercillium and again this bird’s eyeliner is present, but foreshortened. So not a problem for Coop.

      Just before getting to another possiblity, this is not a Buteo, like Redtail, etc.

      We can rule out juvenile Northern Goshawk, for those wont to use their impression of ‘big bird’ or point out that the leggings are marked (‘a Gos tell’) or use the supercillium: first, there would be a lot more white edging on the back of a Gos… the thing would look speckled, while this bird’s back has lighter brown feather edging on its darker brown feathers, so not looking like a bird in a light snow storm (Gos); next, early juvenile plumages are more marked and richly colored tham even a couple of months later for any and all hawks.

      Cooper’s Hawks are overall paler and lighter marked than either Sharpie or Gos, so by next spring you can actually use tone and markings as an ID clue when working on a juvenile Accipiter. At this very young age though, the depth of the coloration is not what you might see at a fall hawkwatch or a bird feeder in winter. But now have that experience.

      In other words, an image of this bird in December would look less streaked even on the upper breast, the amber wash on the upper breast (another ‘Gos tell’) would be gone altogether, and the very thin streaklets we now see lower down, just about invisible.

      1. Me: How do you know so much about raptors?
        Snowy: Well, you just have to know these things when you’re a king, you know.

    1. D:
      Young Sharp-shinned Hawks have darker, rectangular streaklets that are evenly distributed over the breast from top to bottom. The individual markings on a Sharpie look like a keyboard hyphen, enlarged.

      Also, not ‘sharp shinned’. This bird has obvious, thick tarsi. The Sharpie cliche is ‘thin legs’.

      In addition, Sharpie backs come in a couple of choices: most have just a couple of large white spots on each side of the back (absent here) or no spots at all and a clean, even tone overall. So the Sharpie doesn’t have the edging we see across the back here.

      As you Google more images of immie birds or pick up a copy of Brian Wheeler’s Raptors of North America (either the eastern or western volume) look for some of these finer points.

    2. Not at accipiters/buteos/falcos! And juveniles can be the dickens to identify– but it looks to me like Snowy Owl up there is right to identify this one as a young Cooper’s. We didn’t get too many hawks or buzzards in the backyard when I was a kid, so I’m not as good at identifying them as I am the Passerines;-))

      @SnowyOwl– thanks for that link on the “laws of birding”! Hilarious! And very accurate… 🙂

    1. Max:
      Harriers, world-wide, have an owl-like face… with feathers around the eyes forming disks. Eye color for NH in NA is either brown or yellow (brown for young females, golden for young males & adults of either sex).

      You are right about the breast pattern looking like a young Harrier though.

  8. I go along with, Mature. MALE, “Northern Harrier”; the female and young are brown above and streaked below,young with a rusty tone. Males like this one have pale gray back, head and brest. Audubon Field Guide.

  9. I’m going with Buteo platypterus just to upset the anti-Buteo lobby. There seems to be a great deal of Buteo bashing in this thread.

    1. Nice. Broad-winged Hawk is common and is a Buteo that also gets confused with juvenile Accipiter species, both perched and in flight… they do do that flap-flap-flap-glide cadence. Kudos for the BW shout-out.

      Here’s the problem. Where’s the strong malar mark? If there is a Buteo spp. that has one, well, this is the one.

      This time of year too, a BW should be streaked from head to tail, well-marked, as a juvenile. By spring, there will be wear and fade. Although the amount of streaking varies quite a bit in this species when young, it just is never restricted and finely so, like our mystery bird. Also, Broadwings have some thick streaklets that often run together into lines, down the breast. Broadwing sidebar: like several other Buteos, this species can have an actual bellyband (a Redtail tell).

      For the record (senator), I am ah pro-Buteo: plumage tendencies in northern populations of eastern Red-tailed Hawk is a longterm project of mine. Also I’m cited in Brian Wheeler’s eastern raptor volume for my winter studies of Rough-legged Hawk… seeing over a hundred of ’em in one day on occasion, in New York State and New England.

      1. Okay. Well, they may have not won the thread, but they have won our hearts. Even if they did have to “ruffle a few feathers”. Today, we are all Buteo, if only in spirit.

  10. Given the plumage on this bird, it’s pretty apparent that this is a juvenile. Now, the species…

    Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is easily eliminated, as this bird does not show the diagnostic, streaked “belly band” on this species.

    Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) has a reddish, very coarse streaking on its breast, which this bird does not have. These birds (and all other buteos) are very stocky overall, which is not obvious in this bird (of course, without a direct comparison, this is difficult to judge).

    Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus) have a very dark band across the belly, which this bird does not have. Oh yeah, and they’re on the tundra right now…

    Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus) have a very thick, evenly streaked breast/belly, which is in direct contrast to the thin, uneven nature of streaking on this bird. Red-shouldereds also show red on the scapulars, even as juveniles, which this bird does not.

    Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) is easily eliminated, as this bird does not have the trademark owl-shaped facial discs. The streaking on this bird is also not consistent with a juvenille harrier, or a female. Additionally, harriers are birds of open meadows, where they construct nests on the ground — they also perch on very low objects that allow a full 360 degree view of the landscape (not tall, mature deciduous trees).

    So, that essentially boils it down to the two common accipiters, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks (Accipiter cooperii and Accipiter striatus, respectively), ubiquitous denizens of suburban neighborhoods across the country. Based on the thin, dark streaking, which is probably the most consistent plumage-based field mark, I would call this a Cooper’s (Sharpies have a much coarser, reddish streaking). The streaking on Sharpies also tends to extend to the tail, whereas it fades out well before on Cooper’s (which appears consistent with this bird). However, this bird is lacking reddish tones on its face, and also has a fairly prominent supercillium, which contradict this identification. The legs on this bird are also pretty thick, which further supports a Cooper’s Hawk.

    If Peter could post a picture of the tail, or give us an estimate of the size of the bird (pigeon or crow sized?), that could pretty much solidify the identification.

    That was fun…

    1. Mystery Bird (well, no mystery really!) is closer to crow-sized — I would say 20″/50cm. So: Must be a Cooper’s hawk.

      Yes, this has been fun! I really appreciate everyone’s enthusiasm and expertise. Now, if any of you is unsure whether it was krumhorn or a cornetto you saw, call on me!

  11. I say either Coopers or Sharpshinned Hawk. The length of the tarsus is a dead give-away. Tough to narrow it down without seeing the bird in person and getting a size reference.

  12. So we’ve reached a consensus that the bird in the photo is a juvenile Cooper’s hawk — one of a pair that reside in the neighborhood, who spend all day in the trees in our back yard, calling to each other.

    Today I noticed that the (indoor) cat’s attention was riveted by something very close to the house — one of the hawks was lying flat on the ground, only a few feet from a window, wings and tail fanned out as far as they would go. One might think that it was trying to beat the heat, but the day wasn’t particularly hot, and the spot it had chosen wasn’t particularly shady. Perhaps it was staking out the bird bath, which is a shallow dish just inches from where it was lying, but if so, it has a thing or two to learn about stalking its prey!

    After a while, it hopped up and stood on the ground. Then its (presumed) sibling landed nearby, they both stood around for a while, and then they began engaging in some horseplay — half-flying, half-hopping towards each other, but with no attempt to cause injury. After a couple of minutes of this, one of them seemed to play alone for a while — watching the ground intently, and playfully attacking random twigs and leaves. Eventually they both flew off.

    The whole scene reminded me of a couple of kittens or puppies playing, but practicing the skills they will need as adults — defending territory, and hunting.

    1. I’ve put up Peter’s picture of the Cooper’s Hawk flattened on the ground, as described in his post above. It’s the last picture in the main post above.

    2. Wonderful observation, Peter! I’d bet few people have been fortunate enough to witness such behaviors.

  13. I haven’t read all the other posts and I’m in the U.K so I can’t be specific but I know Accipiter nisus and Accipiter gentilis and that bird above is definitely an Accipiter species.

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