A Problem With Merlins and an Answer to the Red-Tailed Hawk

by Bryce W. Robinson

Identifying birds becomes more complex as you learn. This is mainly caused by a lack of content with knowing a bird to species alone. I remember the day when I found satisfaction in telling a hawk apart from a crow. Today I find myself dissatisfied with only knowing that I see a Golden Eagle. I want to know more about the bird. If I could, I would want to know age, gender, and its overall life experiences. Perhaps there is no end. Perhaps I will not be satisfied until I know the birds likes and dislikes, what makes it tick, what makes it laugh. These are all anthropocentric tags, but I use them to illustrate a point. There is no end to an obsession, and perhaps I will never stop. Learning is that way though, and there never is an end. That is why I learn, that I know there will never be an end, until mine. If you can follow my rant, let me lead into this discussion on two birds I recently found in the farmlands of northern Sanpete County.

1. Merlin (Falco columbarius), prairie subspecies. Gender and age unknown.

Prairie Merlin- Falco columbarius

On Thanksgiving day, before I settled in at my parents for an afternoon of excitement, food, and family, I drove along a dirt road looking at fence posts and power poles for raptors. I found a Prairie Merlin atop a pole, looking rather content, as if it had just finished its thanksgiving feast. I took many pictures before the bird flew to rest on a perch farther down the road. After some contemplation, I realized my initial thought of the bird’s gender may be wrong. I actually did not know the difference between a female prairie merlin and a juvenile.

Prairie Merlin taking flight

After some research I was left without any answers to the bird. In my recent correspondence with Jerry Liguori, I decided to send him a picture of the bird and ask him his thoughts. His response settled the matter but not the question. He answered back saying that there really is no definitive way to tell the difference from a female and a juvenile in the field, unless you have the bird in hand. I accepted the dead end and moved on.

2. Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis calurus), western subspecies. Age- Juvenile

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), juvenile

Differentiating adult Red-tailed Hawks from juveniles is not a difficult task given some exposure and little learning. I do seem to still gain a great deal of satisfaction at watching these common birds, and finding out what age the bird may be. Buteo jamaicensis is an incredible bird. The amount of plumage variation in this one species is astounding. Along with other buteos, the dark, rufous or intermediate, and light morphs make the bird exciting for the birder. The Red-tailed also has some other subspecies that mix up the identification possibilities. The Krider’s and Harlan’s hawks are my favorite possibility for the Red-tailed, and with so many choices, it becomes important to know the signs to look for when you make a correct ID of the Red-tailed Hawk.

This is not a discussion of what makes a Harlan’s a Harlan’s. That will come when I can get an acceptable photograph of the bird. The topic I would like to illustrate and discuss is how to tell an immature bird apart from an adult. The bird pictured is a proper and perhaps perfect example illustrating what to look for in ageing Red-tailed Hawks.

Red-Tailed Hawk juvenile showing what to look for in ageing

True, ageing Red-Tailed Hawks can get more complicated and precise, however I want to simply focus on how to tell if the bird is an adult or not. Notice on the bird that the primaries are paler than the secondaries. This can be seen from topside and below, and is a quick indicator of a juvenile or immature bird. In flight, the pale feathers create a light window like panel that is clearly visible in good lighting. Also not the heavy banding of the tail, and the lack of red. Western Red-tailed Hawks generally lack heavily banded tails, so the lack of red and banding tell of a juvenile or immature bird. This point should never be used alone to age a bird, as adults can have many possible tail patterns and color variations. Another helpful tip is the white mottling on the scapulars and upper wing coverts. Generally, adult westerns do not have this feature. Again, never use this point alone to age a bird. Finally, as not illustrated in the photo above, but seen clearly in the preceding photo of the bird, a pale or light eye indicates a young bird. This has its pitfalls, as I found a juvenile bird a few weeks ago with a dark eye, but is a general tip that proves helpful. As this bird posed and I took advantage, I noticed the potential for a discussion on feather anatomy and wing folding. Due to the multiple topics that may come out of this picture, I have decided to rest on ID and find another bird for a later discussion on feather anatomy. I encourage any interested to look at this picture and truly think about how helpful photography or field sketching can be for understanding and learning the intricacies in the world of birds.