Hawk Identification Tips from every angle (Sharpie vs Cooper and Red-tailed Subspecies)

I get several questions about the difference between accipiters. The most common ones are between Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper's Hawks and between Cooper's Hawks vs Northern Goshawks (to a lesser degree). Next, I get many questions dealing with a certain race of buteos the Western Red-tailed Hawk and Harlan's. So I thought I would do a post on these to help answer those questions.

I will deal with Cooper's and Sharpies and not Goshawks because they are much more common here and look much more alike. My friend John Reynolds inspired me to write this up.


COOPER'S AND SHARP-SHINNED HAWKS

EYE COLOUR - YELLOW OR ORANGE? RED?
Normally a juvenile Cooper's hawk has a bright yellow eye and a Juvie Sharpie has a orange eye but some cooper's can have a dull yellow eye that looks a bit orangish. Cooper's Hawks usually only transition to the orange eye colour when they are sub adults, so in good light, it's a very very reliable feature. However you can't rely on it alone as in some light a young cooper's hawk's eye can look orange... Adults of both species have red eyes.

HACKLES OR SMOOTH?
Next note the neck when you go to make the id. If it is a pale light/golden brown white flecked  coloured head and the hairs are up on the back of the head (hackles) you know it is a Cooper's. You will never see that on a Sharpie because it's always smooth at the back of the head there.  Also Cooper's have a uniform dark brown head from the back.
So remember Coops have "hackles" and Sharpies do not. 

Sub-adult Cooper's Hawk showing tawny head with hackles - Photo: Bryan Stephens

LEGS STURDY/THICK OR THIN/LONG ?
Next let's look at the birds legs... you should note how thin they are. Remember that this feature can be very unreliable feature depending on the bird's posture. But if you have good looks and the bird is in a proper posture you will see that normally on a Cooper's Hawk you don't see the leg stem as you do on a sharpie, the legs appear shorter ad sturdier. Sharpies have really thin (I emphasize THIN) legs, even the females, like pencil thin. This is a feature that can take awhile to master as you get used to the jizz of the bird. However, this will become easier every time you go birding, as you gain more and more experience looking at both species in the field. Too bad they don't sit side by side for us! 

SHAPE AND SIZE OF THE BIRD? NOTE HEAD, CHEST AND HIPS
Next look at the chest of the bird. If the chest is not broad and has a tiny head with narrow hips you have a Sharpie. If the bird has a large head and hips and shoulders/chest that are about the same girth you have a Cooper's Hawk. Overall impression is that Cooper's are bigger and Sharpies look smaller but unless they sit right beside each other it is easier said than done.

The head on the bird should stream nicely from the top into its body and it should look well proportioned.  Usually Coops look like they have a neck and Sharpies look like they do not have a neck. Remember though due to posture this can be a deceiving feature. A Coop can be in a posture that makes him look like he has no neck too. This is why we can't ever use one feature alone to identify a bird.  A note to remember on the overall size of the bird - adult female Sharpies can look bigger than small male Coops.
Where is the Eye positioned? Eyebrow?
Next look at the eye placement. The eye is way far forward on a Cooper's . A Sharpie has eyes that are placed in the centre of the head, giving it a big bug-eyed appearance. Also note if it has a prominent white eyebrow like many (NOT ALL) juvenile Sharpies have. Cooper's Hawks can have white eyebrows too but they never are as long or as defined as in Sharp-shinned Hawks.

TAIL SHAPE
To me this not a reliable feature but the one I hear birders using most of all as a stand alone definitive way to identify a Coop vs a Sharpie is to see the tail from the back. I have seen Cooper's with squared tails and Sharpies with tails that look rounded.  Back views can also be variable as wear and moult sets in. However normally in FRESH juveniles you would see more white rounded tips. 

In general though does the tail look square? I find it better to look at the tail from the front not the back of the bird, because you could see the tail feathers getting shorter as you move from the inner to outer tail feathers. If you do see a Sharpie from the back you should notice a cleft in the middle of the squared tail with a thin white tip. Cooper's do not have that cleft in the middle and USUALLY have more white tips (but remember what wear can do).

BREAST FEATHER MARKINGS
Cooper's Hawks have thicker stripes at the top of the chest coming tapering down to very thin stripes of (brown in juvies and reddish in adults) feathers going down to the belly and petering out in the white chest, before you get to the bottom of the chest.

Sharpies have uniform wider/thicker striping or blotches all the way down to the bottom of the breast and it's more of a light brown/reddish colour in juvies and it evenly goes down to the feet. 

WHITE BLOTCHES ON THE BACK? HOW ABOUT THE HEAD?
Regarding the white blotches on the back feathers I do not use this feature, as it is very hard to tell a difference between the two, as it can be so variable from bird to bird. They both have white blotches, so I would not use that field mark. However I do use the feature of the colour of the feathers at the back of the head. Cooper's Hawks have light golden brown heads speckled with white from the back. A Sharpie has a dark head that is never light golden brown and minimal to no white.

THROAT PATCH in Juveniles (Unreliable feature but it's worth noting)
Also note the throat of the bird, this one is tricky and most don't know it when I tell them this but the majority of juvie Cooper's Hawks have a pale throat with a single brown stripe of varying widths down the middle. The majority of juvenile Sharp-shinneds have a fully streaked throat.  However, living in the west coast you really can't say this is a reliable feature because we have many birds that are the exact opposite of the typical Coop and Sharpie you see. This is a trait seen in Western birds and we have many Juvenile Cooper's Hawks here that have more brown streaking in the throat and also have many juvenile Sharpies that have a fully pale throat with a single brown stripe down the middle of their throat. In the east, it's the opposite (note the eastern Coop). 

Again this is a variable feature and never to be used alone but mostly true.



Juvenile Cooper's Hawk in BC displaying the typical throat trait - Photo: Pat Stephens

Here is a photo of a juvenile Sharpie with the pale throat and brown stripe down the middle (typical of a western juvie Sharpie)

Here is a juvie Cooper's Hawk with a streaky brown throat patch (typical of juvie western Coops)

CAP OR NO CAP? (FOR ADULTS ONLY)
A Cooper’s Hawk has a cap of dark grey feathers on the head with a pale neck, while a Sharpie has a hooded appearance with no separation with dark grey head and neck. 

Here are 2 photos my friend got of an adult Sharpie (note the hood but also the chest pattern and bug eyes) :



Note the continuous hood (front and back views) on this adult Sharp-shinned Hawk - Photos: Pat Stephens
Adult Cooper's Hawk note the black cap - Photo: Bryan Stephens

FLIGHT
Coopers have a bigger head projecting far beyond the wings in flight. Sharpies have short round wings that seem to push forward and the small head just barely extends past the wings. Both hawks fly with small glides. However, Cooper's fly with slower wing beats and Sharpies fly with very fast erratic wing beats

Cooper's Hawk in flight - Photo: Bryan Stephens

Here is a great step by step reference guide with photos. You can compare every aspect and feature, complete with photos of the tails at every angle and includes things you may not have known.


Click HERE and save the pdf for your reference when you come across these two similar looking species


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RED-TAILED HAWK SUBSPECIES

Another Hawk that people find confusing are Red-taileds and these can be hard for many people because they are so variable! One may look like a completely different subspecies but they are all just different morphs of the same subspecies.Yes, they are so variable.


Yesterday in Pitt Meadows while looking at a Gyrfalcon, I saw many Red-tailed Hawks, including a Dark morph Red-tailed, and Dark-morph and Light-morph Harlan's Red-tailed Hawks.


First I will list all the subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk (RTHA)


In Canada we have 3 main ones: "calurus" (Western), "borealis" (Eastern) and "harlani" (Harlan's).  Generally Red-taileds are placed into three groups. The Western Group, The Eastern Group and the Harlan's Group.


All Borealis birds are light morphs and they even have a further distinction in this group called "Krider's", they are very rare but still Borealis birds with a colour variant. They are extremely pale with a white head and white underwing coverts, except for a small brownish-red bar on the inner underwing. Viewed from the back they have lots of white in the middle of their shoulders (scapulars). They have a tail where the end half is mostly white leading to faintly pale red with a faint subterminal band. Krider's are seen mostly in the Great Plains regions.


Regular Borealis adults have white uppertail coverts, brown heads, white throats, white mottling on the scaps. The tail is all reddish brown with very few bands, a pale body with no reddish/brown wash and leg feathers can be marked or unmarked and a dark belly band.


In Alaska and parts of BC there is the "Alaskan Red-tailed" which many don't believe deserves full subspecies status as they think it is just an intermediate "calurus". Regardless it is its own subspecies and it is called "alascensis." These birds look like our light-morphs calurus except they have a very red brown body and a wide black subterminal band on their tail.

The last two are "umbrinus" (Florida Red-tailed) and "fuertesi" (Fuerte's Red-tailed) and they hardly leave their ranges. They are both grouped in the Eastern Group.


Fuerte's have no belly band  and a white throat but look like a light-morph Borealis.  Their underwing coverts are white with a dark brown bar on the leading edge of the inner underwing (patagial bar).


Florida Red-tailed Hawks are all light-morphs and look like our Western Red-Taileds here in the West Coast except they are noticeably larger.


In flight all Red-taileds hold their wings in a slight dihedral with slow and deep wing-beats and they like to soar on thermals.


First off out west here in this part of southern BC we have the "Western Red-tailed Hawk" or calurus subsp. and the "Harlan's Hawk" or harlani subsp. Harlan's do not breed here they breed in northern BC,YK and AK.



Before I begin I want to note that separating juvenile subspecies is daunting and very difficult, so it would be too long a discussion for this post to talk about each juvenile subspecies. Doing so in the field takes plenty of hours of field practice and review of photos, tail patterns etc and even some experts cannot classify certain juveniles to a subspecies.  However, I will briefly talk about the differences between Immature Dark-morph Harlan's and Imm Dark-morph Red-taileds, as these are the 2 subspecies and colour morphs that seem to be the toughest for most. I will discuss how using the dorsal view of the tail is the best method to separate them. Remember though the tails in all morphs and subspecies at this age are also highly vary variable, but most of them have a general pattern I'll discuss further in this post.


Western Red-tailed Hawks have 3 distinct colour morphs:


Light-morph


Intermediate-morph

Dark-morph (true dark-morphs' have dark underwing coverts)


Light-morphs make up 80-90% of all Western Red-taileds. Intermediate, Dark-morphs and Harlan's make up the rest at 10-20%. 


The tricky thing about these morphs is that they all vary in colour and shading within their own colour morphs.


For instance there is an unofficial "Rufous-morph" but he is either a light-morph or an intermediate (depending how dark it is) Red-tailed with a rufous wash to the feathers.


So as you can see they can look like a totally different color morph within their own subspecies.


In general though you identify light and intermediate morphs by the dark bar on the leading edge of the inner wing. You identify Dark-morph adults by the tail colour/pattern.


However, since 80% of our birds are light morphs, I will describe that morph in greater detail:


Light-morphs (calurus) 

They have a dark bar on the leading edge of the inner underwing (true of most intermediates as well). They have a dark trailing edge to the pale wing which is also noticeable in flight. They have brown backs, a pale reddish brown body with barring and a streaked belly band that can vary from light brown and subtle to dark. Most birds have streaked or dark brown throats. When they are perched you will notice a lot of white mottling on the scaps and a pale reddish tail (true for most birds). Sometimes the pale red tail is streaked faintly with black bars. About 45% of birds have a single band on their tail. They have barred brown leg feathers. Imm have pale eyes and adults have dark eyes. 

Juvies as I said above have pale yellow eyes and have a brown tail (that's longer than the adults) with fine even black barring on both sides with white tips when viewed dorsally (from the back). In flight juvies have a pale trailing edge to the wing (differs from adults). They also have a very pale panel above and below that includes the inner primaries. They have a belly band that is streaked much more thickly brown than the adults.


Adult Intermediate morphs (calurus)
have a dark bar on the leading edge of the inner underwing. They have a dark reddish brown belly,breast, legs and body. They have very little white in the scapulars.

Adult Dark morphs (calurus)
have an dark brown almost black body and underwing coverts. The tail viewed from the back is dark reddish brown with fine barring and a dark subterminal band. Juveniles in this morph are very hard to tell apart from juvenile Harlan's.

HARLAN'S RED-TAILED HAWKS


First of all when you see a bird you suspect to be a Harlan's Hawk that is perched take advantage of it! Note if the wing tips fall noticeably short of the tail tip. If it does you have a Harlan's Hawk (This is true of Eastern Borealis RTHA but I'm speaking in BC).  In Western Red-tailed Hawks calurus, you will see that the wingtips reach the tail tip.**


Harlan's Hawks are all mostly all intermediate morphs making up 85% of their population followed by the more uncommon truly dark morphs which make up 7-12% (I'm a purist when it comes to birds) and light-morph Harlan's that make up about 10%. Harlan's usually do not have any red in their tails. REMEMBER SOME DO THOUGH :)
.

Adult Light-morph (Harlani) 
Have quite a bit of white in their face around their eyes. Some people say they look like they are wearing "spectacles." Most light-morphs are white below with a black bar to their inner underwings with a medium amount of dark brown/black streaking on their bellies and underwing coverts. Some birds are almost all white below. They have white tails that you can usually see through in flight or while perched revealing a black subterminal band.

Adult Intermediate-morph (Harlani) 
Dark brownish-black body and dark-brown white mottled underwing coverts. You can't see the black bar on the inner underwings in this morph easily if at all.They also have white morphs some people group these as dark-morphs and then believe that 85% of Harlan's are dark morphs for that reason. Some can appear dark rufous in colour (but these may be hybrids).

Adult Dark-morph (Harlani) 
Dark Chocolate-Black body (often has white on the breast) and black underwing coverts. No white mottling on the underwing coverts. In flight note the white flight feathers and thin black barring with a wide black trailing edge. Tail is grey to white and with fine black bands. A subterminal bar is not always present on the tail in this morph. Also fun fact that only pertains to dark-morph Harlan's (actually to any dark morph Buteo);  they have white patches in flight on the dorsal side above their so-called "armpits" or shoulders.

JUVENILE Dark-morph HARLAN'S VS JUVENILE Dark-morph WESTERN RED-TAILED
Harlan's have white mottling on their head, face and crown, and mottling on the scapulars and upper wing coverts. You should note how the primaries in the wings contrast with the dark banding and the white.They have a dark tail that has thick dark evenly spaced bands throughout and Western Caludrus will not have tails that dark and usually the tail banding is more fine than in Harlan's. An immature Harlan's Hawk's tail is really contrasting with those evenly wider bands. You can also usually see some mottling of white on the tail on a dorsal view of the bird. Their tails can be variable like the adults are. On a Juvenile caludrus you would see solid dark brown outer primaries instead of the contrasting black and white barring of a juvenile Harlani. Note also, that a dark-morph Western race Red-tailed Hawk is more dark chocolate brown than the blacker dark-morphed Harlan's. Juvie Harlan's usually have more white streaking on the breast than a Western dark-morph Red-tailed Hawk.

The way to tell an adult Harlan's Hawk definitively apart from other calurus Red-tailed Hawk morphs is also to see the back of the tail. These are easier to tell apart than the Juvies. 
Adults have a white basal area to the upper tail and some birds have very barred tails that look wavy and some have only sparsely barred tails or none at all. Most adults have white mottling in the tail (differs from calurus) and have a thicker and wider dark subterminal band with white tail tips. This band is not allows distinct and less wide than in Rough-leggeds. Some birds have a bit of red wash towards the end of the tail before the white tail tips at the end. Once you get to learn what a Harlan's tail looks like (remember they can have red in the tail!) you should have no problems. Study this GUIDE to see the extreme variation in the tails of Harlan's Hawks. Although they are variable they still hold most of the same characteristics. The underside (ventral side) of the tail is not definitive to nail the species to Harlan's because the underside is so variable as the guide I linked to above shows. You must use the backside (dorsal view) of the tail, you need to get a good view of the tail in the field. People who have lots of field experience can usually tell because they know that most western red-tailed hawks of the calurus race have a pinkish hue to the underside of their tail but I caution using this alone. In certain lights it can look completely white in western calurus. The way to be certain is with a dorsal view. 

Photos are always great in raptor identification so take many and id later if you aren't sure in the field. Also in Harlan's they usually have white patches of feathers on the breast and variable white around the face as well. Some Harlan's are solidly black with no white on the chest and look like many calurus dark-morphs. 


Note- many people mix up Harlan's Hawks with juvie Western Red-taileds because they both have barred tails but the tail on a juvie lacks the same distinct pattern of the Harlan's I've described above. Many people mix up dark-morph Rough-legged Hawks with dark-morph Harlan's but note that Roughies have wrist patches (in the underwing) in flight and a distinct WIDE black subterminal band.


LEGS

The feathering on the legs of harlani goes down longer than on calurus. Therefore you see more skin on calurus when they are standing than on a harlani. However, unless they are sitting side by side this is tough to tell apart. This is something I do not suggest using in the field but would be fun to compare on your photos when you return home with suspected individuals.

To see photos of most of the different subspecies of Red-taileds, with photos of their tails and every angle, along with the birds in flight and detailed subsp. info, use the link below.



Click HERE for the pdf of this great guide on every Red-tailed Hawk subspecies and colour morph.


Two other great guides specifically dealing with Harlan's Hawks are posted HERE and HERE


My friend Mike Tabak is excellent at the identification of Harlan's Hawks, Falcons you name it.


Here are some photos he got of some Red-taileds just to show you the variation. (All photos used with permission).



Immature Dark-morph Harlan's in Pitt Meadows - Photos: Mike Tabak


Adult Dark-morph Red-tailed Hawk in Richmond - Photo: Mike Tabak


 Dark-morph RTHAs, note the difference in amt of red in the tail - Photos: Mike Tabak


Western Immature RTHA moulting into Adult plumage - Photo: Mike Tabak


Light-morph Harlan's in Pitt Meadows - Photos: Mike Tabak

Adult Western Red-tailed Hawk - Photo: Mike Tabak


Immature Western Red-tailed Hawk - Photo: Mike Tabak

What's your favourite morph or subspecies? Mine is the unofficial rufous morph followed closely by dark morphs. Here is an example of rarely seen rufous morph.

Thank you to Mike Tabak and Pat and Bryan Stephens for the use of their photos. This took several hours to write up so I hope some of you will find it helpful. If you have any other ID tutorial suggestions, please let me know I post all of them under the Identification Tutorials tab in the top menu at the center of the home page.

Comments

  1. You get more than your fair share of questions from me about Sharp-shinned and Copper Hawk identification. I appreciate all of the help that you have given me. Very likely I still have some of my photos incorrectly labeled. I should take the time to look at all of my photos and re-evaluate my ID. Thank you for writing this. For me, the bottom Line: It is complicated. This is very detailed so I can only imagine how much time you must have spent researching writing this. Thanks again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much jim means a lot I spent hours writing this up those red-tailedS as you know hope all is well and appreciate the kindness and glad I could help hope all is well

      Delete
    2. Thanks my friend your questions inspired me glad it's somewhat helpful

      Delete
  2. Jim just forwarded your Cooper's/Sharpie write-up to me. You put it together better than anything else I've read. Phenomenally done! Thank you very much. I'll have to go back over photos from yesterday and see if I stick with my earlier ID's.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This was a wonderful write up on distinguishing between the cooper's/Sharpie. I have always had trouble telling the difference between the two and now i think i'll be able to finally tell the difference.

    ReplyDelete
  4. About a year ago I found this bird perched beside the road in South Delta. I've only ever seen the rufous morph of Red-tailed before, and very far away too, but this one looked like it should be a rufous-morph.

    https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S33420689

    Was I right?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Paul I would call this an intermediate morph it's not rufous enough for a rufous morph which has a deeper wash see here for what I mean https://flic.kr/p/r9zp4V

      Delete
  5. Yeah, I see what you mean. Guess I don't see intermediate-morph birds very often either.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks Melissa for the very helpful write-up! I am getting better but struggling a bit with this particular Sharp-shinned/Cooper's from today at Iona (overlooking SW pond):

    https://s18.postimg.org/4i5ndhqt5/Hawk3.jpg
    https://s18.postimg.org/opj35tbft/Hawk4.jpg
    https://s18.postimg.org/hz2lwe3pl/Hawk5.jpg
    https://s18.postimg.org/t17ouf5dl/Hawk6.jpg

    It was on the small side (male Cooper's or female SS?) and had the small head/no neck appearance of SS, but I'm not totally convinced... The dark cap also appears to extend into the neck, but it has some white flecks there as well... what would you say?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Zac,
      I see why you thought this individual was tricky and it's great you had multiple views to really see what the bird was because at some angles looks like a dusky grey neck and others bulging eyes but there are some key features that you can see that point to the id. first of all the eye placement is foreward and not in the middle of the head like a sharpie and in the foreward facing photos he has no bug eyed appearance. next you can see in one of your shots that the black cap is just that a cap and not a CONTINUOUS hood extending down the nape. Sharpie adults always have hoods. thirdly note the spread tail shot (great shot by the way). here you can see fully rounded tail tips and nice white fringes around the tail which sharpies seldom have and they also have square looking tails. so you have an adult cooper's hawk on your hands :) thanks for sharing contact me anytime if you need help again.

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    2. PS one more thing to note is the big thick sturdy legs indicative of a cooper's. sharpie's have pencil thin legs even the females.

      Delete
    3. Thanks very much! I'll keep working on it. :)

      Delete
  7. I returned to read your tutorial on Red-tailed Hawk identification after seeing and getting poor photos of a dark, almost black raptor yesterday. Light was poor so maybe it is not as dark as it appeared. I have no flight photos. It did raise it's wings briefly and I saw mostly white but didn't get a good looks because I was grabbing my camera and coming to a stop while driving down the road. Maybe there is not enough information in my photos for positive ID and I am not sure if I can link to my Flickr account but will try. Is this bird a dark morph red-tallied Hawk or even possible a dark-morph Rough-legged hawk? If the link doesn't work of course I will try a different way to show you the photos.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/jlcummins_photography/45291601925/in/dateposted/

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/jlcummins_photography/46153587762/in/photostream/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. HEY I ONLY GOT ONE SHOT TO OPEN AND IT IS A DARK MORPH ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK A STUNNING INDIVIDUAL AND MY FAVE HAWK

      Delete
    2. Thank you. Your are the second person to confirm that it is a rough-legged hawk. I should have looked closer at the legs. The feathers extend to the feet. I also learned that links to flickr photos that are marked private will not work here. You were able to see one because I marked it public after I had a response from another expert. However, I think if you copy and paste both links might work. I don't often comment but I enjoy reading your blog.

      Delete
    3. hi jim i copy and pasted and the link still doesnt work cheers

      Delete

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