Birding: Learn how to tell hawks apart

  • Article by: VAL CUNNINGHAM , Contributing Writer
  • Updated: April 23, 2013 - 3:46 PM

Red-shouldered hawk

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Q: I enjoy watching raptors, but other than eagles and red tail-hawked hawks, I have a hard time knowing what I’m looking at. Any advice?

A: You’re certainly not alone — few of us are experts at telling one raptor from another. One challenge is that a hawk perched in a tree can look very different from the same bird in flight. Another is that we usually see hawks as they’re flying far away.

Here are several things that should help you develop raptor identification skills:

• Study Jerry Liguori’s excellent book, “Hawks at a Distance,” with its hundreds of photos of raptors in flight. I’ve found this book to be very helpful in providing identification clues. It’s a bargain at less than $20.

• Go out hawk watching with someone who’s good at identifying hawks, and ask him/her to tell you what features they’re using to identify an individual bird: How do they know it’s a broad-winged hawk and not some other bird?

• Visit Hawk Ridge in Duluth during fall raptor migration (generally, mid-September to mid-October) and listen to the educators and others as they display birds caught in the banding nets. Check it out at

• Familiarize yourself with the birds you’re likely to see in our area (bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, broad-winged hawk, red-shouldered hawk, Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, American kestrel, merlin, rough-legged hawk) to learn their habitats and whether they’re migratory. This will help narrow the field somewhat. Good luck, and you’re going to have fun on this journey.

Ailing house finches

Q: We’ve had some bad looking house finches at the feeders. Can you tell me what’s wrong with their eyes?

A: It sounds like those house finches are suffering from avian conjunctivitis, a bacterial infection that has hit this species hard. The disease causes the tissue around the eyes to swell and itch, and their eyes may become matted shut. They then are vulnerable to starvation and/or to predators. Some birds recover on their own, but may still be carriers. Be sure to take down any feeders the finches use and clean them thoroughly at least weekly.

Nomadic goldfinches

Q: I usually have a big crowd of goldfinches at the feeders, but this year they’ve disappeared. What’s up with that?

A: These are “here today, gone tomorrow” birds, moving around in nomadic flocks in winter. Goldfinches stick to a seed diet throughout the seasons, and the finches you used to host must be finding enough food in the wild (or at someone else’s feeders). If you can be patient and keep feeders clean and seed fresh, those vibrant little birds should make an appearance soon.

Phoebe vs. pewee

Q: Is there an easy way to tell a pewee from a phoebe by listening to their songs?

A: I’m glad you picked these two species, because it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to tell their songs apart. The phoebe’s song sounds very hoarse and raspy, while an Eastern wood-pewee whistles up, then down. Hear them here: and

Both these birds are migratory, and should be returning to the state soon to sing their songs.

Ground feeders in snow

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