Identifying Immature Red-tailed Hawks

As an apprentice, I am only allowed to capture what is known as a passage bird, which is a bird that was born in the spring of the year I am taking it. These are also known as immature birds, and generally have different plumage than the mature birds do. This makes identifying the bird you are trying to catch a little bit easier.

My goal is to catch a Red-tailed Hawk instead of an American Kestrel, so finding an immature Red-tail is what I’m focusing on. If you don’t know much about identifying birds, I suggest you start practicing. Get a field guide. A good one. Peterson or Sibley are both great. Start with raptors, obviously, since that is what really matters to you, but start learning songbirds at the same time. The first question is, obviously, is what I’m looking at even a Red-tailed Hawk?

There are three different types of raptors, generally speaking, used in falconry: buteos, accipiters, and falcons.

Identifying Raptors

This is an example of the genus buteo, which includes Red-tails. They have long wings, short bodies, and a short tail. They are adapted for soaring over large fields or perching on high places.

This is the silhouette of an accipiter. They have short wings and a proportionally long, straight tail. They are adapted for hunting in thick wooded areas.

This is the silhouette of a falcon. They have sharp, pointed wings, a triangular body, and a long straight tail. They are adapted for extremely fast flight and chasing after waterfowl and other game birds.

Now we know whether or not our mystery bird is even in the genus we want. Now that that’s settled: is it a Red-tail? Is it immature?

Haggard Red-Tail

This is a mature, or haggard, Red-Tailed hawk. The defining features of the Red-tailed hawk are the dark bars on the leading edge of the wings and brown patches on the stomach.

Immature Red-Tail

This is an immature Red-tailed Hawk. Note how it still has the same brown patches on its stomach, the same dark bar on the leading edge of its wings, and the same silhouette as the adult. The striking difference between the two is, obviously, the tail. It isn’t red! the red tail feathers do not grow in until after the first moult, so the key in telling the difference between an immature red-tail and another buteo is the dark bar on the leading edge of the wings.


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