Friday, July 18, 2014

Juvenile Hawks Increasing in Urban Yards

As several species of hawks have become more urbanized I have gotten an increasing number of photos of hawks from readers’ yards. By far the most common species are the red-shouldered hawk and the Cooper’s hawk. Identification of the adults of these two species is fairly straightforward; even a non-birder with a good eye for detail can usually figure out the species with the aid of a good field guide.  The juveniles however are a different story. Even experienced birders can find distinguishing between the two to be a challenge. Since young hawks are now moving around and being seen more frequently, here are a few ID points that you might use if one of these young hawks appears in your yard.
First of all, to figure out if you are dealing with an immature hawk, look at the breast. Both species have vertical streaking here. Cooper’s hawks are slimmer and of lighter build than the red-shouldered hawk. They also have a proportionately longer and thinner tail, which gives them a “longer” look than the red-shouldered.  If you can get a good look at the face, the Cooper’s has a much “fiercer” look. The irises of the eyes are pale and piercing. To me, the bird looks angry and mean.
Red-shouldered hawk immatures have a more docile look to the face. While the irises may be too be pale, the contrast between the iris and pupil is less, giving the bird a more relaxed expression. The red-shouldered hawk has broader shoulders and a comparatively wider and shorter tail, giving the bird an overall more compact shape. In flight, they have two light-colored “windows” towards the wingtips on the upper side of the wings.
Behavior can be a clue too. Cooper’s hawks often seem to appear more alert or nervous; constantly craning their necks and looking around. They often don’t sit still very long. Red-shouldereds appear more relaxed and hunkered down.

Other birds in your yard may give you a clue too. Cooper’s hawks eat birds so when one appears on the scene the smaller birds vanish and shut up. Red-shouldered hawks are more rodent and amphibian eaters so often the other birds pay them no mind or may hop around and scold them a bit. 

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk by Kent Fiala