What were those things in New Jersey?

22 05 2014

Aside from the live birds, which, by comparison were exceedingly easy to identify, the two dead specimens in the last post have generated substantial debate and controversy. I won’t claim to play tiebreaker here since I don’t know the right answer, but I will do my best at my usual role, which is musing and pondering through the options.

For our dead bird, we can, at the very least, state that this is some kind of bird of prey. We can see the taloned toes, and the other features we have here are a strongly banded tail and stripes on the wings as well. Guesses that came in via the comments or via email were: 1) Cooper’s Hawk; 2) Sharp-shinned Hawk; 3) female Northern Harrier. Let us take that last one first. Could this be a harrier, as Wouter suggested? Here are the usual things I would grasp onto in making that i.d. which are unavailable here–an owl-like face (head is missing); a white rump (feathers over tail base and back have weathered away); flight pattern, usually low over dunes and marshes (dead). What do we have? That banded tail, which hen harriers do have, and the legs, which appear quite skinny to me.

The legs and feet of a captive harrier. Seem maybe more substantial than our dead bird's? (Photo: University of Minnesota)

The legs and feet of a captive harrier. Seem maybe more substantial than our dead bird’s?

It’s hard to get an overall sense of size in this case, so that’s not a big help. It does seem to me that harriers will usually have more tail bands and that they are more closely spaced than we see in our dead specimen. The background color in the tail and wings of a female harrier also strikes me as darker and more gray than what we have in our specimen, but I am open to debate on all these points.

Female Northern Harrier in flight. (photo: Dan Pancamo)

Female Northern Harrier in flight. (photo: Dan Pancamo)

If we take up the cause of the accipiters, we come to a very familiar question: is this a Sharp-shinned or a Cooper’s Hawk? There are several field marks to be used to help make the determination, though it can be difficult given that the largest Sharpies overlap with the smallest Cooper’s in terms of size. But features like tail shape and overall impression of the head seeming big or small for the body can be of help when those traits are evident. We dead bird enthusiasts, however, are accustomed to challenges like “head not present.” So we will work with what we do have. From the angle we see here, it’s fairly hard to say whether the tail is rounded or squared off. There is a pale band at the very end of the tail, but is it more like a Sharp-shinned or a Cooper’s? We do at least have the legs, and if forced to say whether they are more pencil-like, or more stocky, I think I’d concur with Mary Wright and say they look skinny, and that this is thus a Sharp-shinned Hawk. As usual, I will entertain debate, shouting down, and fierce opposition.


It’s only going to get worse as we turn to that mammal paw emerging from the sand. Mammals are way outside my wheelhouse. My first instinct was to say raccoon, based on the hand-like appearance (though the fifth digit is hard to make out, which would help) and the grizzled look to what fur is visible. In terms of what our other contestants thought, Mary Wright says mink, Mary Myers says opossum, and Wouter thought either raccoon or marten. So our list ranges from a marsupial to something in the weasel family, to a member of the Procyonids (raccoon). A diverse slate that speaks to the confusion that can arise when faced with a hand-like paw. The best I can really do is offer a side by side of those various paws and see what you think:

Check out this blog post including close up of the partial webbing between a mink’s toes. Does the toe length and degree of webbing match our specimen? Marten are typically found farther north than Jerry’s beach in Jersey, but for other weasels generally, they tend to have a more paw-like foot, rather than distinct, divided toes, at least in my judgment. Opossums have an opposable digit on the hind foot, but the forefoot looks more like our specimen’s, so I think opossum is a definite contender. Raccoon feet are somewhat similar, with long, free toes, but they are generally furred all the way to the toe tip, and our specimen’s toes look a bit more hairless. I think I might reject my initial guess and go with Mary Myers on this one. Anyone see anything I’m missing? Other ideas?

Raccoon paw languorously reaching for some cat food.

Raccoon paw languorously reaching for some cat food.

Virginia opossum: Hind foot with opposable "thumb" and forefeet in the background.

Hind foot with opposable “thumb” and forefeet in the background.




4 responses

22 05 2014
Jenette Kerr

Love that languorous raccoon paw!!!

28 05 2014

I know, huh? Lovely to hear from you, Jenette!

25 05 2014
Wouter van Gestel

It seems I misjudged this bird. I misinterpreted the white bases of the tail feathers as a white rump, that’s why I thought of a harrier. An accipiter is much more likely, and looking at the grass this one seems very small, therefore I tend to agree with sharp-shinned hawk

28 05 2014

This is why I love Dead Bird Quizzes! Such a different endeavor than live bird i.d. At which I am fairly terrible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: