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BIRDING IS POPULAR BECAUSE IT IS SO EASY / BIRDING IS POPULAR BECAUSE IT IS SO DIFFICULT

By Nic.Korte

A few scattered feathers. Some are blood-splattered. What happened? A conflict for certain. There was a winner and a loser.

This led me to think of a less serious conflict--a recent debate on the website of the American Birding Association (www.aba.org). Two prominent birders were arguing whether the popularity of birding should be attributed to whether it was difficult or easy. To me, it is a bit of both. But, what has this to do with blood-spattered feathers?

A few minutes before, I had looked out my window and admired thirty or forty birds milling about my various backyard feeders. There were Lesser Goldfinches—a few males were starting to acquire their lemon yellow and jet black summer plumage. There were male House Finches displaying their range of color from pink to red. Dark-eyed Juncos representing several subspecies were also present. These birds were easy to watch, and easy to identify. Birding, therefore, is fun, because it is easy.

Now, my feeder birds were gone. I had a suspicion of what happened, and scanned the nearby trees. Eventually I spied a hunched-over shape. From past experience, I knew it was either a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Both birds are common in the Grand Valley during the winter, and both feed almost entirely on other birds. Large assemblies of prey, such as at feeders, are attractive to the birds that would eat the birds that eat the seeds.

Birders accept the idea of Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks taking a few birds near their feeders. We hope that it will be one of the common and exotic species such as a Eurasian Collared Dove or a House Sparrow, even though we know that’s not always the case.

What birders find “difficult” about Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks is identifying them. These two hawks are closely-related. They belong to a family known as accipiters. They have very similar plumages and habits.

(Accipters have relatively short wings, perfect for maneuvering quickly. (Check out this YOUTUBE video of the closely-related Goshawk if you want to “feel” how these birds can dodge and dive: http://youtu.be/waNQmNF6Sgs)

What about the identification problem? I know I’ve made mistakes. The size of these birds can overlap, as can their other characteristics. That is, a large specimen of the usually-smaller Sharp-shinned, can overlap in size with a small Cooper’s Hawk. Fortunately, with enough viewing time or with great photos; most can be identified.

A Sharp-shinned tends to have a squarer tail, but conditions of molt and age make this characteristic unreliable. Usually, you need to examine several characteristics to be certain. Below is a photo of a Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk taken by a neighbor. This one was cruising our neighborhood, and a pile of feathers in another yard may have accounted for this bird’s long period of posing for photos. When they are actively hunting, accipters don’t tend to sit still very long, but after a meal, feeling sated, they may permit a close approach. Most birding field guides are unable to list enough information for separating Cooper’s from Sharp-shinned especially the juveniles.  How do I know this is a Coopers Hawk?

(photo by Joe Kendrick)

• The side/back view shows quite a bit of white on the nape. That is characteristic of a Cooper’s hawk. A Sharp-shinned would be dark.
• With the back view, you can see three dark bands on the tail—one just emerging from under the feathers on the back and then two more. On most Sharp-shinned hawks, you can only see two.
• The head appears flat not rounded. Cooper’s are flat, Sharp-shinned are rounded.
• The photo from the front shows what appear to be relatively thick legs. A sharp-shinned’s legs would look thin.
• If you had to say whether the eye appeared “forward” in the head or to the middle, I think you’d agree it looks forward.
That was fun—puzzling out which hawk this was and being able to explain it to my neighbor.

Here’s a view of a Sharp-shinned Hawk. 

(Sharp-shinned Hawk in my apricot tree)

This is an adult. If it were a juvenile, colors and markings would be very similar to the Cooper’s Hawk. Notice the apparent small head. It also has a big-eyed and barrel-chested look. Both are characteristics of Sharp-shinned. Those weren’t so hard were they?

What about this one? 

(juvenile Cooper's[?] Hawk)
I was able to examine this hawk for a long time, but the nape and head shape are not discernible in the bright light with this viewing angle.  The legs aren’t visible. The tail tip seems to be between rounded and square.   This type of view isn’t uncommon. Now what? My general impression of size and shape was that the bird was a Cooper’s hawk, but I’m not making any wagers. I had to leave that one unidentified, but it was fun to try and figure it out.

What about the debate on the ABA website? For me, it is a draw. I like to go birding because sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is difficult.


This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.com. [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]
 

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