Today I’ll tell you how to identify the birds yourself.
Right off the bat I’m going to narrow the scope. In western Pennsylvania you can see up to nine hawk and three falcon species depending on time of year and habitat. To make this manageable I’ll address the most common identification question faced by city folks: Is this bird a peregrine falcon or a red-tailed hawk?
First, ask yourself several key questions.
Is it a bird of prey? Birds of prey eat meat so they have hooked beaks (see the tip of the beak) and talons (big claws). If the bird does not have these features it’s neither a falcon nor a hawk and you can stop right there.
What time of year is it? Peregrines and red-tails live in western Pennsylvania year round so the time of year doesn’t eliminate either bird due to migration. However identification is more challenging in June and early July when the juvenile peregrines are flying around town.
Where is the bird? In what habitat? Is it in the city on a building? (Could be either a peregrine or a red-tail) In the suburbs? (likely a red-tailed hawk) On a bridge? (either bird) On a light pole over the highway? (likely a red-tail) In a tree? (likely a red-tail) Standing on your picnic table? (likely a red-tail) Standing on the ground? (likely a red-tail) …But in June a juvenile peregrine might be found in some of the “red-tail” places.
Is the bird in the human zone? Is the bird perched close to humans and doesn’t even care about them? If so, it’s probably a red-tailed hawk …but is it June?
Three Basic Ways to Identify Hawks, Eagles, Falcons
Size and Shape
Most birds of prey fall into four major categories. (Northern Harrier, Osprey, and kites are a few exceptions.) These are the core attributes for each:
- Buteos are the large, broad-winged, short-tailed lugs with spare and labored wing beats.
- Accipiters are small, narrow-tailed forest dwellers with short, rapid, bursting flaps, punctuated by a glide.
- Falcons are slender- and pointy-winged speedsters with steadier wing flaps.
- Big Black Birds (eagles and vultures) are the super-size, darker-plumed titans that make spare use of their wings.
Once you’ve sorted your groups, it’s time to narrow down the candidate species. Look for specific features—though fine distinctions in plumage might still be hard to pin down. For instance, the signature double ‘stache on an American Kestrel’s face may not be so obvious, so rely on its overall paleness to help distinguish it from the slightly larger and darker female and juvenile Merlin.
Manner of flight can also be a defining feature. The American Kestrel’s flight is batty and flat, for example, while the Merlin’s wing beats are fast, powerful, and piston-like. Kestrels float when they glide; the heavier Merlins sink. Peregrine Falcons, on the other hand, have shallow, elastic wing beats—you can practically see the motion rippling down the falcon’s long and tapered wings.
As the bird approaches, make sure to test your hypothesis; other clues will become more obvious as the distance closes. And don’t worry, even the experts get fooled. It’s what keeps them coming back, season after season.
What does it look like?
Red-tailed hawks are bigger than crows. They are white on their chests and speckled brown on their heads, faces, wings and backs. Their throats are white but their faces are brown all the way to their shoulders. They have brown hash mark stripes on their bellies (low, between their legs). Only adult red-tailed hawks have rusty red tails. Juveniles have brown tails with horizontal stripes.
Adult peregrines are smaller than red-tailed hawks, about the size of a crow but bulkier. Adult peregrines are charcoal gray and white. Their backs, wings and heads are charcoalgray, their chests are white and their bellies and legs are heavily striped (horizontally) with dark gray. Their heads are dark gray and their faces are white with dark gray sideburns called malar stripes. Peregrines have malar stripes; red-tailed hawks do not.
When it’s flying, does it have “fingers” on the tips of its wings?
Did you see it flying? Hawks (and eagles and vultures) have “fingers” on the tips of their wings. Falcons have pointy wings.