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jroland

ID Hawk attacking sparrows at feeder

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My 3rd photo on a new camera captured this picture of what I think is a Hawk about 10 inches from taking a sparrow.  This was taken just 5 miles east of Chicago in a suburban area.  Please help me identify what it is.

Hawk takes Sparrow - Close up.jpg

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I had considered a Mourning Dove and had search for photos showing it flying from behind.  The photos I found had a different wing structure where there was clear separation between the wing feathers so that the entire neck and back are visible between the wings.  The tail also was much more symmetrical with bright white markings which this does not have.  I am new at this and would love to know how you identified it conclusively.  This is my first year using cameras, feeders, fountains and bird baths to enjoy nature. 

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First, I'll say this quickly -- if you can, spend a few books on a field guide. On-line photos are a useful resource, but you're limited to whatever angles and lighting that the photographers saw fit to publish, and you're dependent upon them to get the ID right. (Many of them don't....)

For this guy -- ignore the clear separation between the wing and back. That's entirely dependent upon the moment that the camera caught the bird. Similarly, symmetry is something that all birds show under normal circumstances, so if you don't see it, that's not an ID mark. The overall soft brown color fading to gray, the dark spots on the tertials, and the shape and pattern of the tail are all distinctive. The bright white markings that seem to be missing here appears to be a combination of which feathers you're seeing (some of the outer ones appear to still be folded underneath), the age of the feathers (this is just about the time that old feathers are starting to be replaced, so some birds are going to look dingy or faded), and the lighting in the photo.

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@jroland The head and neck are hidden by the shoulders because the bird is coming in for a landing.  The wings are spread wide and the tail is flared out because the bird is using them to catch air and slow down to land, the same way an aircraft raises its wing flaps.  The body rotates from more horizontal flight posture to a more vertical one that brings the feet forward to grasp the landing target.  While the body rotates to the vertical, the head stays more horizontal to so the eyes can remain focused on the target.  So the bird's actions and the angle of the photo are why the neck, back, and wing separation aren't what other photos may have led you to expect.

Great photo, by the way!  It's an unusual angle, but one that can give an appreciation for why more traditional angles can give a false impression in the field.  As to the white in the tail, I didn't see the photos you saw but they may have shown the bird from below.  There's more white visible on Mourning Dove tails from that angle.

Why a Mourning Dove?  Well, there are no small raptors with those markings, or with the chunky body of a dove.  If you were able to see the bill, you'd see it was a long, pointy, general purpose one, not a hooked one fit for tearing meat.  Ditto the feet, good for walking or perching but without talons  and therefore lousy for grabbing prey.  And you're more likely to get a dove at suburban feeders than a small raptor.  Raptors that hunt around feeders usually hit their prey as fast as possible so the impact will kill or stun.  These feeders are mounted so close to the fence that a killing blow is almost impossible.  So this bird wasn't hunting, it was coming to the feeders for a meal.  Mourning Doves are opportunistic and common at seed feeders, usually on the ground but often trying to jam their bodies onto perches where they may barely fit.  See those dark spots on toward the back of the wings?  Those are decent field marks for Mourning Doves, as is the overall taupe / gray color.  If you spot another one, listen closely if it takes off.  Mourning Dove wings make a unique sound on take-off, a whistling note repeated rapidly for five or six times.  And basically, when you've seen Mourning Doves several times a day, you eventually see them from enough angles that you'd recognize one under most circumstances.

I hope others will refine my points.  Regardless, welcome to the forum and to birding.  If you don't have any yet, get yourself a decent set of entry-level binoculars ($100-150 dollars should do nicely) and a good printed field guide (Sibleys, Petersons, National Geographic; $10 - $20).

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