A studio for bird study

Tag: red-tailed

Buteo cooperi- A Journey of Mystery Into Ornithological History

by Bryce W. Robinson


A quick sketch of my interpretation of Buteo cooperi

A few weeks ago my friend Mike called me and asked if I was interested in helping him solve a bit of a mystery he had stumbled upon. A friend of his had found an old ornithology book in a store in Moab, Utah. She was admiring the plates, and came upon one that interested her. It was an illustration of a hawk named Buteo cooperi. She had never heard of any Buteo with the species epithet cooperi. Her curiosity caused her to contact Mike and ask if he had any idea what this bird might be. He had never heard of Buteo cooperi either, but resolved to solve the mystery.

Mike did some research and came up with a reporting of two accounts of this Buteo cooperi. Apparently, in 1855, an ornithologist named J.G. Cooper came upon an interesting hawk in southern California. He shot the hawk, as was the custom of the time, and collected the specimen. He decided the bird was its own species and coined it Buteo cooperi. Mike found this account, as well as an account by the ornithologist Ridgway on the California bird and a second Colorado bird. You can read his account  here. Both accounts hover around the possibility that this bird is somehow related to the Red-tailed Hawk- Buteo jamaicensis, and could possibly be the light phase of the subspecies Harlani. Ridgway reviewed the decision to coin Buteo cooperi as a separate species, however he was confused by the coloration of the primaries, and could not settle upon the identity of the bird. It was left unsettled.

When Mike called me, he had felt that he needed a second opinion and some help with the bird. I of course agreed to help. As I am a true geek when it comes to the world of birds, I thought the journey back into the archives of ornithological history would prove fruitful for my education. And of course it would also be fun. I read the two papers that he sent me describing the bird, and felt that the specimen was likely the light morph of Buteo jamaicensis harlani, the Harlan’s Hawk. Still, to be thorough, I searched further.

I finally found a definitive answer to support my assumptions at the following link.


This description from a review of the specimen in 1930 gave me the impression without much doubt that the bird known as Buteo cooperi was in fact a light morph Buteo jamaicensis harlani. I felt good about where the mystery came to its end, but for the need to somehow come to an answer of my own, I decided to do some further looking, and it payed off.

I found a link to information regarding a specimen at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. The specimen is in fact the very bird that J.G. Cooper shot, and collected. You could imagine my excitement at finding that the specimen was still around. You can see the link here.

I decided that the only way for me to come to any conclusion on the birds identity was to see the bird for myself. At the moment, I was not in any position to make a trip to Washington D.C., so I thought I would take a chance at emailing the curators of the museum in hopes that they might send me some photos.

Below, you can see the result of that email. They sent me photos!







It is obvious by these photos that this is indeed a light morph Harlan’s Hawk. I love the white in the crown and nape.  What an adventure. I am super thankful to Mike for including me in the hunt. I would also like to thank those at the Smithsonian for their cooperation and willingness to send me these photos. My curiosity and fascination for the study of birds knows no end, and the history of ornithology is no exception. Let the journey for knowledge continue.



by Bryce W. Robinson

"Migration" 18x24" acrylic on canvas.

“Migration” 18×24″ acrylic on canvas.

I’d like to thank Mr. Mike Shaw for the generosity he extended me the past fall migration season. He was kind enough to lend me his pair of Zeiss 8×42 binoculars for the entire season. As a young biologist, I cannot afford luxuries like these binoculars. My ability to effectively document the migration to the up most accuracy was directly aided with this pair. For his kindness, I painted a scene of a migrating adult Red-tailed Hawk as I might have seen it through the lens. Thanks again Mike. I hope you enjoy this scene as much as I enjoyed my season.

An Insight into an Interaction- The Red-tailed Hawk and American Badger

by Bryce W. Robinson


While out conducting Golden Eagle surveys in the west desert, I stumble upon many interesting and peculiar things. Car carcasses are among my favorite, but often I come upon the fauna of the land, and stand privy to their every day lives.

This past week I stopped to look at a distant Red-tailed Hawk sitting atop a greasewood, only a few feet from the ground. This behavior is a bit peculiar for this Buteo. I see many Rough-legged Hawks sitting on bushes in the deserts, but in my experience, Red-tailed Hawks tend to prefer the power poles and rock ledges. The bird sitting low caught my eye, so I investigated.

I am so happy I took the time to look. What I observed is illustrated in the above video. Again, I apologize for the quality. It is the best I could put together with my mediocre digiscoping skills. Still, I was able to capture the scene.

An American Badger- Taxidea taxus, was milling about to the left of the perched bird.  To see a badger is a treat itself, but this experience was even more special. It seemed the hawk was paying a great deal of attention to the badger. Along with the hawk and badger, a raven sat on a pole just to the right of the hawk, scolding the scene. As you can see in the video, the badger seems to be digging, and moving something about. I can only postulate what the three creatures were up to.

I think that the hawk had some success in procuring a meal for itself, only to find its prey victim to some interspecific klepto-parasitism. That is, to say, the hawk was robbed of its kill by the badger. That would have been incredible to catch, but one is only so lucky. I believe the interaction in the video is simply a Red-tailed Hawk watching a badger burry its stolen prey. The presence of the raven adds some confidence to my diagnostic.

Experiences such as this are why field work is such an adventure. I hope this upcoming week brings more adventure, as I travel the desert in search of winged wonders.

by Bryce W. Robinson

Dark Morph Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk- Buteo jamaicensis

The past few months have been full of incredible encounters with the winged world. Recently I found a young Red-tailed Hawk perched atop a fence post along the roadside. I stopped to photograph the bird, as is my custom. I took notice of the dark coloration of the bird, which always excites me. As is possible in winter, I always get excited about dark Red-tailed Hawks and the possibility that they might be Harlan’s. I recently posted about how to distinguish between dark juvenile Westerns and Harlan’s. As I described, it is easy to see that this is a dark Western, not a Harlan’s. Still, I love the chance to see all of the diversity in the species.

What struck me about this particular bird was not anything dealing with plumage. I noticed a large clump of grass in the birds talons. Chuckling, I passed it off as a missed attempt at some prey, coming away with only a healthy talon full of weeds. I didn’t even raise my binoculars to check. Luckily, the photo tells the story. This young bird was successful in obtaining a morning meal.

It tickles me to find myself with a photo of a bird clutching its prey. The story continues, however. The bird lit off of the pole, headed away from the highway to a more secretive feeding spot. I was taken aback as a large tumbleweed flew with the hawk. I couldn’t help but laugh. In the desperate attempt to glean a morning meal, the youthful raptor grabbed more than its target, and couldn’t risk releasing the extras until it began consuming the meal.

I’ve seen some peculiar and comical behavior from young birds in the past. At the beginning of the migration season, I observed a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk grab a pine cone from a tree. It soared about for some time, regularly checking the object in its talons. One can only speculate as to what this bird was doing, but it was quite the sight, to be sure. These special instances display the character that birds possess, only becoming apparent with detailed observation, too often overlooked.