Birds of Prey of the West: A Field Guide

Birds of Prey of the West: A Field Guide

by Brian K. Wheeler


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Birds of Prey of the West and its companion volume, Birds of Prey of the East, are the most comprehensive and authoritative field guides to North American birds of prey ever published. Written and lavishly illustrated with stunning, lifelike paintings by leading field-guide illustrator, photographer, and author Brian Wheeler, the guides depict an enormous range of variations of age, sex, color, and plumage, and feature a significant amount of plumage data that has never been published before. The painted figures illustrate plumage and species comparisons in a classic field-guide layout. Each species is shown in the same posture and from the same viewpoint, which further assists comparisons. Facing-page text includes quick-reference identification points and brief natural history accounts that incorporate the latest information. The range maps are exceptionally accurate and much larger than those in other guides. They plot the most up-to-date distribution information for each species and include the location of cities for more accurate reference. Finally, the guides feature color habitat photographs next to the maps. The result sets a new standard for guides to North America's birds of prey.
  • Lavishly illustrated with stunning, lifelike paintings
  • Written and illustrated by a leading authority on North American birds of prey
  • Depicts more plumages than any other guide
  • Concise facing-page text includes quick-reference identification points
  • Classic field-guide layout makes comparing species easy
  • Large, accurate range maps include up-to-date distribution information
  • Unique color habitat photographs next to the maps

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691117188
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 06/19/2018
Edition description: Flexibound
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 555,362
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Brian K. Wheeler has been studying, painting, and photographing birds of prey throughout the United States and Canada for more than fifty years. He is the illustrator of Hawks of North America (Peterson Field Guides), the coauthor and photographer of A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors (Princeton), and the author and photographer of Raptors of Eastern North America and Raptors of Western North America (Princeton). His photographs have appeared in many other books and in many bird magazines.

Read an Excerpt



The American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) has been engaged in major reclassification of avian species during the last several years based on technological advancement of DNA studies. Some taxonomic changes are quite drastic from previous, historic treatment, which was based on physical aspects. Major taxonomic placement of our New World Vultures and especially of falcons has been logically altered based on recent DNA studies.


The most drastic AOU reclassification occurred in 2012, when falcons were separated from other diurnal birds of prey: the eagles, harriers, hawks, kites, and Osprey (and, at the time, vultures). Falcons were kept in their own order, the Falconiformes, and the other species were put into a new order, Accipitriformes.

The AOU based its decision on two conclusive DNA studies. (1) An evolution divergent-time study by Ericson et al. (2006) said: "Our data recover a clade that includes the Secretarybird and accipitrid diurnal birds of prey (osprey, hawks, and allies) to the exclusion of falcons." (2) The clincher, a phylogenomic study done by Hackett et al. (2008), stated: "One of the most unexpected findings was the sister relationship between Passeriformes [songbirds] and Psittaciformes [parrots], with Falconidae (falcons) sister to this clade."

The wheels started grinding after these publications as to where falcons (and parrots) should be placed in the avian taxonomic format. DNA confirmed that songbirds and especially parrots shared a similar but distant ancestry with falcons.

Based on these two DNA studies, the AOU moved falcons (and parrots) to taxonomic locations in the checklist before Passeriformes and after non-passerines, following the woodpeckers (order Piciformes). This new taxonomic location is of course far away from the falcons' previous standing, which was based on physical foraging similarities with the diurnal raptors of Accipitriformes.

This taxonomic split goes back to just after the Cretaceous, the period of the dinosaurs, to 66 million years ago (mya). In a massive whole-genome DNA study, Jarvis et al. (2014) determined that diurnal raptors of Accipitriformes, falcons, and parrots (and many other orders) were dividing into their respective designations in the early part of the Paleogene period, which followed the Cretaceous (bird types, of course, evolved with dinosaurs in the Cretaceous). Accipitriformes and Falconiformes emerged early on, and parrots a tad later, in the 50 mya range. (Passeriformes evolved much later, in the 30 mya range.)

The revised taxonomic realignment of falcons, parrots, and passerines by the AOU in 2012 was verified in the Jarvis et al. (2014) study. Falcons are "sister" to parrots and passerines.

The recent taxonomic revisions by the AOU will undoubtedly stand. It is difficult to dispute multiple DNA studies that have arrived at the same conclusion.

Falcons are, unquestionably, birds of prey; they just evolved from a different lineage from the bird of prey species — and former brethren — of Accipitriformes.

Many raptor enthusiasts were undoubtedly perplexed at first by the actions of the AOU. "How dare the noble falcons be placed next to gaudy parrots!" was an understandable reaction. Although falcons did not derive from parrots, many parrot species still retain falcon-like attributes from a shared ancestor: fleshy area around the eyes, post in the nostrils, a notch near the tip of the upper mandible, and few build nests. However, parrots evolved zygodactyl feet (as did most woodpeckers), with two toes in front and two in back, which are far different from the feet of falcons.

DNA is extremely complex, and it is certainly difficult for most of us to discern its technical terminology.

A more tangible visual connection also exists between falcons and parrots (and passerines): wing molt between falcons and parrots is virtually identical — and tail molt of falcons, parrots, and passerines is identical (P. Pyle pers. comm.).

Based on 4,500 specimens of falcons and parrots, Pyle (2013) found they are the only two bird orders in the world to share this particular flight feather molt sequence.

Falcon Wing Molt:Primaries. — Molt starts on the 4th or sometimes 5th feather, counting from the inner part of the 10 primaries, and molts in a bidirectional sequential fashion. Secondaries. — Molt always begins on the 5th feather from the outer part of the secondaries and also proceeds in a bidirectional sequential fashion. From an innermostpoint on the farthest inward feather of this tract, molt proceeds outward and meets the inward bidirectional molt of the inner wing. Tail. — Molt starts on central set, as on most birds, but extends in a sequential fashion outwardly to the outermost set.

Parrot Wing Molt:Primaries. — Molt starts on the 5th or sometimes 6th feather, counting from the inner part of the 10 primaries, and molts in a bidirectional sequential fashion. Secondaries. — Molt is identical to that of falcons. Tail. — Molt is identical to falcons (and Passeriformes).

Hawk (and Allies) Wing Molt:Primaries. — Molt starts on the innermost feather of the 10 primaries and molts sequentially outwardly to the outermost feather. Secondaries. — There are 3 different points where molt initiates: an outer point (1st feather), a midpoint (5th feather), with both molting sequentially inwardly, and an inner point, on the innermost feather (variable with size of bird), which molts sequentially outwardly, meeting where the 5th feather's initiating point ends its inward sequential extension (variable with size of bird). Tail. — From the central set, molt jumps to the outermost set, then to variable locations between center and outer sets (usually 3rd set).

Gray Hawk

A less dramatic taxonomic alteration also occurred in 2012, when the AOU changed Gray Hawk's scientific name from Asturina nitida to Buteo plagiatus (AOU 2012). This realignment illustrates that this hawk is more closely related to species in genus Buteo than previously determined. Its position in the AOU Checklist, however, remains the same.

White-tailed Hawk

A notable change occurred with this species in 2015 (AOU 2015). White-tailed Hawk's scientific name was changed from Buteo albicaudatus to Geranoaetus albicaudatus, and its taxonomic position in the AOU checklist sequence was realigned. This species was historically placed in the genus Buteo between Swainson's Hawk (B. swainsoni) and Zone-tailed Hawk (B. albonotatus). In the current U.S. checklist, White-tailed Hawk has been moved to a slot between Harris's Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) and the 1st Buteo, Gray Hawk (B. plagiatus). (In the full North American checklist, two Neotropical species sit between White-tailed Hawk and Gray Hawk.) Though in a different genus, White-tailed Hawk may be more closely related to Common Black Hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus) and Harris's Hawk, though the three are in different genera, than to its previous kin in the genus Buteo. (Physically, these three hawks tend to have defined, visible nasal posts, similar to those of falcons, though they are less obvious on some White-tailed Hawks.)


After considerable taxonomic juggling in recent years, the AOU reclassified New World Vultures (yet again) in 2016. They are no longer considered part of the diurnal birds of prey order Accipitriformes. However, all recent DNA studies still consider them birds of prey. But, as with falcons, they originated from a different ancestral source, evolving near the time of Accipitriformes and Falconiformes in the early Paleogene period (per Jarvis et al. 2014). Historically, vultures were considered diurnal birds of prey in the original Falconiformes. In 1997, the AOU took vultures, which make up the family Cathartidae, out of Falconiformes and placed them with storks into the order Ciconiiformes (AOU 1997). However, neither Ericson et al. (2006) nor Hackett et al. (2008) found any DNA correlation between vultures and storks; this taxonomic alignment was based on ill-founded physical data. Cathartidae was "provisionally" returned to its original sequence in front of birds of prey within the original Falconiformes in 2007 (AOU 2007).

Since vultures did not fit the mold of diurnal birds of prey — or other avian forms for that matter — they were logically assigned their own order, Cathartiformes, in 2016 (AOU 2016). The AOU based this realignment on the whole-genome DNA study by Jarvis et al. (2014), which placed them in Accipitriformes but as sister clade to other species of that order. The AOU stated: "Cathartidae are sister to the rest of the Accipitriformes and ... are as old or older than other lineages recognized as orders." Vultures are still taxonomically placed directly in front of the diurnal birds of prey of Accipitriformes (formerly Falconiformes), just in their own rightful order.

This taxonomic realignment may likely (finally) remain intact.


Falcons: These spirited birds are included in this book because they are predator and bird of prey. They just evolved from another ancestral lineage and fill different ecological niches than their former brethren of Accipitriformes. Actually, falcons are much more humane predators: They quickly kill their prey by immediately severing the spinal cord with their beak. Birds of the Accipitriformes kill prey slowly with their feet, by suffocation or by bleeding out — eating them until they die. Falcons and parrots (and passerines) are offshoots of a similar ancestor; thus, they are logically placed near each other in taxonomic status. Jarvis et al. (2014) considered falcons as birds of prey in their DNA sequencing (and also placed them adjacent to parrots and in front of passerines).

Vultures: Bare-headed Cathartiformes are included herein because of their historic and recent taxonomic relationship with the diurnal birds of prey — and very recent disassociation from them. All recent DNA studies consider them birds of prey, very closely aligned with Accipitriformes but different enough to warrant their own order.

We have been at the mercy of the taxonomy juggling performed by the AOU when it could not find an appropriate taxonomic location for these unique birds. It seems that, finally, they have been allocated their own taxonomic spot. Though they are primarily scavengers, all three North American species are carnivorous and will occasionally kill prey; Black Vulture is most notorious for such predatory behavior.

Wing molt sequence in the vultures is also similar to that of Accipitriformes (molt starts at the same points on the innermost primaries, and on the 1st, 5th, and innermost secondaries).

Note: Species format and layout in this book reflect the new AOU changes of the 7th edition of the 57th Supplement, as of Jul. 2016 (AOU 2016).

Book Format


North America encompasses the continental United States and Canada, as well as the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, and Greenland. This book's scope is only the w. continental United States north of the Mexican border and west of the Mississippi River, and w. Canada west of Manitoba and the w. shore of Hudson Bay, then due north into Nunavut and westward across the Arctic islands of Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and Alaska west to the Aleutian Islands.

The Mississippi River is used as a demarcation line in the U.S., as it was for Raptors of Western North America (Wheeler 2003b), because it is a distinct geographic landmark, and western raptors mainly stay west of the river. Only a few western species regularly winter, in small numbers, east of the river, and a few stray east of the river in winter.

The w. shore of Hudson Bay and mainland e. Nunavut in Canada also form a diagnostic geographic border between East and West. Baffin Island, Nunavut, is not considered within this book's scope.


Taxonomic order presides over most of the book; 1 short section contains birds grouped regionally. Taxonomic layout. — The taxonomic schematic of the 7th edition and 57th supplement of the American Ornithologists' Union Checklist (AOU 2016) is followed, except for placement of Bald Eagle. The eagle is placed directly in front of Golden Eagle, out of its normal place in the taxonomic order (between the kites and harrier), because of the 2 eagles' similarity in non-adult plumages (and size). As described in the "Taxonomy" section, falcons and vultures are included in the book as birds of prey. Regional section. — Behind the bulk of the species of the book is the regional section "Southwestern Specialty Species." These are species that are of Neotropical origin but make the sw. U.S. the n. extreme of their normal range. (The "Fuertes" Red-tailed Hawk is an exception; it is included with rest of Red-tailed Hawks rather than in this section.) All species within this section are still placed within respective taxonomic order.


Illustrations. — Figures are drawn and painted in repetitive same-position poses for optimal comparison between similar species. (The occasional exceptions include behavioral and/or feeding poses; e.g., Bald Eagle, Crested Caracara, Swallow-tailed Kite.) Perching: Simple profile angle with dorsal side of tail is shown. This best illustrates markings and shows wingtip-to-tail-tip ratio. Direct dorsal views are sometimes used. I like 3-dimensional figures, so some shadowing is used to convey 3-D form, including shadows when figures overlap. Flying: Four positions are used: (a) Direct overhead soaring. — Shows optimal wing size and shape and tail markings. (b) Direct overhead gliding. — Shows average wing position in moderate-speed glide with a partially closed wing. The position is used when space is limited and when a soaring figure is already shown. In both these flight positions, the birds are painted in shadowed backlit angles of view. "Shadow-side" rendering replicates real-life viewing with the sun's angle above the bird. This method also allows for optimal depiction of pale, translucent windows on species and/or ages that display this marking. Tail color and markings show best on several species when seen underneath in translucent lighting, especially when tail is fanned during soaring flight. (c) Ventral flapping flight. — Depicts figures lit by direct light, with 1 wing raised high in an upstroke to show shape and markings. Figures are off the perpendicular and flying slightly at the viewer. This figure saves space or unneeded redundancy in showing soaring or gliding positions. It also presents comparisons between backlit shadowed markings and directly lit markings — as in such species as Red-shouldered Hawk and Red-tailed Hawk. (d) Dorsal flapping flight. — Illustrates dorsal flight identification markings, such as wing panels and uppertail covert and tail color and/or markings. This angle also is used to show molt patterns. This figure is flying slightly away from the viewer, and position of wing and tail is at the beginning of an upstroke. Note: Mississippi Kite and Swallow-tailed Kite plates include an underside view of a soaring figure reaching down to feed. This shows classic in-flight feeding posture in these two species. (Similar aerial feeding occurs with falcons, especially while eating large insects.)

Arrangement. — For each species, the arrangement of the birds depicted is based on age and subspecies. (1) Birds are arranged youngest to oldest, whether in plate order or within a plate. (2) In most species that have subspecies, each subspecies is placed on a separate plate or plates, and youngest to oldest sequence is followed (see "Note," below). (3) Complex species such as buteos, which have many plumage variations, have separate "perching" and "flying" plates in addition to being arranged in youngest to oldest sequence. (4) Figures are arranged from lightest to darkest variants, placed in youngest to oldest order. This includes buteo species with color morphs, which are arranged lightest to darkest in a clinal order, if applicable.

Figures on plates are arranged in a 3-to 5-row linear format. However, this format could not always be followed when arranging perching and flying birds on the same plate. Figures are usually in left-to-right layout, but sometimes a partial vertical or partial diagonal layout was necessary.


Excerpted from "Birds of Prey of the West: A Field Guide"
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Table of Contents

List of Plates 6

Preface 9

Acknowledgments 13

Introduction 17

Taxonomy 17

Book Format 21

Key to Maps 27

Identifying Birds of Prey 28

Anatomy and Plumage Glossary 31

Anatomy and Plumage Plate 33

Age Classification and Molt Stages 37

In-Flight Field-Visible Wing and Tail Molt Plate 49

Species Accounts 50

Southwestern Specialty Species 286

Bibliography 343

Abbreviations 356

Index 357

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"North American raptors, even the common ones, can be incredibly variable in appearance and a challenge to identify for many birders. In his new guides, Brian Wheeler celebrates this diversity and skillfully guides observers through steps to distinguish what they are seeing. Bravo for his approach and industry, which will assist us all in appreciating the raptors of our world!"—Gordon Court, wildlife biologist

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