Last Thursday at lunchtime a bird of prey caused quite a stir in downtown Pittsburgh when it perched on a light fixture and very publicly ate a pigeon.
Katie Cunningham sent me photographs of the bird and asked, “Is this a falcon or a hawk?” She guessed it was a hawk and she was right (it’s an immature red-tailed hawk). How could she be sure it’s not a peregrine?
Telling the difference between a falcon and a hawk is a common identification problem, so common that people often ask me for help.
Today I’ll tell you how to identify the birds yourself.
Right off the bat I’m going to narrow the scope. In western Pennsylvania you can see up to nine hawk and three falcon species depending on time of year and habitat. To make this manageable I’ll address the most common identification question faced by city folks: Is this bird a peregrine falcon or a red-tailed hawk?
First, ask yourself several key questions.
Is it a bird of prey? Birds of prey eat meat so they have hooked beaks (see the tip of the beak) and talons (big claws). If the bird does not have these features it’s neither a falcon nor a hawk and you can stop right there.
What time of year is it? Peregrines and red-tails live in western Pennsylvania year round so the time of year doesn’t eliminate either bird due to migration. However identification is more challenging in June and early July when the juvenile peregrines are flying around town.
Where is the bird? In what habitat? Is it in the city on a building? (Could be either a peregrine or a red-tail) In the suburbs? (likely a red-tailed hawk) On a bridge? (either bird) On a light pole over the highway? (likely a red-tail) In a tree? (likely a red-tail) Standing on your picnic table? (likely a red-tail) Standing on the ground? (likely a red-tail) …But in June a juvenile peregrine might be found in some of the “red-tail” places.
Is the bird in the human zone? Is the bird perched close to humans and doesn’t even care about them? If so, it’s probably a red-tailed hawk …but is it June?
What does it look like?
Red-tailed hawks are bigger than crows. They are white on their chests and speckled brown on their heads, faces, wings and backs. Their throats are white but their faces are brown all the way to their shoulders. They have brown hash mark stripes on their bellies (low, between their legs). Only adult red-tailed hawks have rusty red tails. Juveniles have brown tails with horizontal stripes.
Adult peregrines are smaller than red-tailed hawks, about the size of a crow but bulkier. Adult peregrines are charcoal gray and white. Their backs, wings and heads are charcoal gray, their chests are white and their bellies and legs are heavily striped (horizontally) with dark gray. Their heads are dark gray and their faces are white with dark gray sideburns called malar stripes. Peregrines have malar stripes; red-tailed hawks do not.
Here’s a photo comparison of the two: red-tailed hawk on the left, adult peregrine on the right.
When it’s flying, does it have “fingers” on the tips of its wings?
Did you see it flying? Hawks (and eagles and vultures) have “fingers” on the tips of their wings. Falcons have pointy wings.
Silhouette of Buteo (hawk), Accipiter(hawk) and Falcon (from NPS.gov. I have added labels)
What’s this thing about June?
In June in Pittsburgh juvenile peregrines leave the nest and learn to fly. Immature peregrines are brown and cream-colored instead of gray and white like the adults. They have no white on their chests and the stripes on their bellies are vertical instead of horizontal.
Newly fledged juvenile peregrines may do almost anything, including perch in the human zone. Because they are brown you can’t use those easy color cues you use for adults.
Here is a photo comparison of an immature red-tailed hawk (on the left) versus an immature peregrine (on the right). Though similar in color, they still look very different. The young peregrine’s belly is completely striped.
What is the likelihood of seeing either bird? Peregrines are rare. Red-tailed hawks are the most common hawk in North America.
So you’re usually right if you say it’s a red-tail. You’re unlikely to see a peregrine near ground level in Pittsburgh. That’s why we get excited about peregrines.
(Red-tailed hawk photo by Katie Cunningham, Peregrine photos by Kim Steininger)
MORE CLUES BELOW:
Many readers have recently asked for help identifying a brown-and-beige-colored bird of prey in their backyards with vertical chest stripes like a juvenile peregrine. If you have a similar bird in your backyard and it …
- doesn’t have a pronounced malar stripe on its face
- is hunting for birds
- moves so fast it seems high strung
- jumps on the birds in the bushes and chases them through the trees
- has “fingers” on its wing tips (Accipiter silhouette above)
… then it’s a Coopers hawk. They are bird-eating birds of prey (Accipiters) that specialize in woodland habitat and hunt in tight spaces.
Here’s a good comparison of peregrine vs. Coopers hawk vs. merlin from the OFNC Falcon Watch in Canada. Note: Merlins occur in Canada but are unusual in Pennsylvania and south of here.