American Birding Podcast



Shades of Gray (and Brown)

I wrote recently that I admire authors who shake things up, who take us outside our comfort zones, who upset the apple cart. Hence, my admiration for Jerry Liguori, Brian Sullivan, and Peter Pyle. All three are well known in the birding community. All three have written for Birding magazine. In fact, all three have bylines in the July/August 2013 issue of Birding.

Over the years, those three, each in their own way, have challenged me to reexamine some of my basic assumptions about bird identification. Despite their differences of opinion (more on that in a moment), they’ve come at me—again, each in their own way—with a unified message. I’m paraphrasing, but it goes like this: “Look carefully at birds. One bird at a time. One feather tract at a time. You’ll learn stuff you never knew. You might even learn stuff nobody ever knew.”

That message applies with particular force to the widespread, common, and basically “easy” birds. Birds like Mallards, Red-tailed Hawks, and American Robins. Pay attention—really, pay attention—to those birds, and you’ll be amazed by all the stuff you didn’t know.

Which brings me to the matter of Northern Harriers. As you’ll see on the pages of the print version of the current issue of Birding (July/August 2013, pp. 10–13), Peter Pyle offers one version of harrier identification, while Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan offer another. Simply put, they disagree.

Fine. But let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. These three have gotten me to look anew at Northern Harriers.

Until recently, I would have told you that Northern Harriers are widespread, common, and basically “easy.” Accipiters and juvenile buteos are hard, but not harriers. With its facial disk and white rump, distinctive body shape and flight style, and preference for open habitats, the Northern Harrier is usually a cinch to ID.

True, there are different plumages. Check out any general field guide to the birds of North America, and you’ll see depicted three discrete plumages: juvenile, adult female, and adult male. It’s so easy: robin-redbreast juveniles, streaky brown adult females, and “gray ghosts” (the adult males).

Except it’s not true.

Males after their first year are almost infinitely variable. A few of them are the classic pearl–gray. But others are largely brown. Many others are intermediate. On top of the variation in color, there’s variation in pattern: Male harriers are variably streaky, blotchy, and plain.

13-2-09-01 [Fig 1]

How old are these Northern Harriers, and what sex(es) are they? Photos by (c) Jerry Liguori.

Can we make sense out of this variation? That’s where Pyle differs from Liguori and Sullivan. See for yourself: Read Liguori and Sullivan’s original article in Birding, then read the commentaries from Pyle and from Liguori and Sullivan. Then go out and do what all three of them are exhorting us to do: Go outside and actually look at real, live harriers. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised and humbled at the learning experience.

Thanks, Brian, Jerry, and Peter, for opening our eyes to all the variation, complexity, and subtle beauty of Northern Harriers.