Book Review


  Utah Birds 17(2): 86-87, 2003   2003 Utah Ornithological Society

Raptors of Western North America

Raptors of Western North America. Text and photographs by Brian K. Wheeler; range maps by John M. Economidy and Brian K. Wheeler. Forward by Clayton M. White. 2003. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. 544pp. 603 color plates. Hard cover. List price is $50.00 at Princeton University Press but I obtained my copy from for $35.00.

     Utah is a raptor lover's paradise. The numbers of individuals and species that breed in the state as well the raptorial pageantry that drapes the state in winter is well known to birders and raptor enthusiasts alike. Because raptors appeal to an even wider audience than just these two groups, Utah's blessing of raptors is known to a broad spectrum of the general public as well. Some of my most cherished raptor memories are from Utah: the first Bald Eagles and Rough-legged Hawks that I ever saw were in the San Pete Valley. The hundreds of days I have spent roaming the canyon country of southern Utah were done with Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcons, Red-tailed Hawks, or Peregrine Falcons almost always in view. I will never tire of the periodic fall trips I make to the summit of Navajo Mountain to watch the small particle of migrating hawks climb the northwest ridge after their crossing of the spectacular Glen Canyon redrock country 7000 feet below.

     This book is a quality product. Although it emphasizes plumage descriptions and field identification, IT is more than simply an identification guide because a fair amount of information on biology, behavior, ecology, and conservation is included for each species. It is well constructed, attractively formatted, approximately 9.5 x 6.3 x 1.25 inches in size, and weighs three pounds (quite heavy for its size). It is divided into seven chapters, the species accounts, a bibliography and an index. The chapters take up the first 33 pages and the species accounts fill 483 pages. The chapters cover an introduction, a general glossary, an anatomy and feather glossary, a flying and perching displays glossary, perching attitudes (illustrated with 22 color photographs), and a discussion of the photography. In the Introduction, Wheeler discusses the concept of the book and the format of the species accounts. Those interested in bird photography will appreciate the discussion of his equipment and techniques in chapter 7. The index is rather weak because it covers only common and Latin names of the species treated.

     The species accounts form the bulk of the book. Thirty-three species found roughly west of the Mississippi River are treated in a structured and consistent format. Wheeler includes the three North American New World vultures (which the American Ornithologists Union consider to be storks rather than a type of hawk) but does not include the owls. Since the only North American hawk not treated in this book is the Snail Kite this book will serve one's identification need for virtually all of the United States and Canada. Each account covers topics under the headings of ages, molt, subspecies, color morphs, size, species traits, age traits, abnormal plumages, habitat (by season), habits, feeding, flight, voice, status and distribution, nesting, courtship, conservation, mortality, similar species, other names, and references. Most of the text for each species is dominated by plumage descriptions. Each headings is bold-faced so the text along with the dimensions give this book an appearance similar to the many advanced or specialty guides to specific bird families that have been published over the past 10-15 years. The treatment of the bewildering array of Red-tailed Hawk plumage types may be the most thorough ever assembled between the covers of a single popular guide. An indication of the thoroughness of the text that caught my attention was the inclusion of the early and late extent of the timing of migration for many species. For example, Wheeler notes Prairie Falcons may begin spring migration as early as January. In southeastern Utah and northeastern Arizona, this movement is nearly imperceptible and it took several years of accumulated incidental observations before 1 personally became aware of it. This book would have saved me this trouble.

     The range maps are detailed and the product of much research and contact with scores of regional experts. They appear to be the most thorough and accurate maps available so far for North America's raptors. Not surprisingly, several maps (six for Red-tailed Hawk) are occasionally included for each species in order to depict subspecific ranges. I noticed a few problems with some of the maps. For example I am not sure the pattern depicted for Cooper's Hawk across northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico is accurate and some breeding populations of this and a couple other species appear to have been missed. I did notice that he included the small wintering populations of Swainson's Hawks in western Sonora and Sinaloa. The maps, by Wheeler's own admission, resemble in style and format those prepared by Garrett and Dunn for their 1997 Peterson Field Guide to the Warblers of North America. I think the effort to produce maps of this level of detail is a good development in advanced guides and hopefully we'll see others following the lead of these two volumes.

     The 603 color plates are outstanding. Wheeler obviously invested tremendous effort and time to obtain consistently composed and illuminated images. Even though each photograph is selected to facilitate the dry concept of field identification virtually every one qualifies as art, especially those of birds in flight. In a very small number of the plates a wing tip here and there may be cropped but the photograph is still bright and clear and composed like all the others. Some may have an aesthetic problem with power lines or power poles appearing in some of the plates but these features are part of the same physical reality we share with these birds and that is where all of us very often see them. Each plate is 2.5 inches wide by 2.9 inches tall and there is a maximum of four per page. Each is identified as to species, age, color morph (where appropriate), and month and has brief text highlighting salient identification characters shown in the image. The number of images per species reflects the degree of plumage variability. This number ranged from six for Zone-tailed Hawk and eight for Short-tailed Hawk to an astounding 82 for Red-tailed Hawk. Roger Tory Peterson opined in his guides that paintings serve the field guide concept better than photographs because the illustrator can provide for better consistency 264 of format, color, and other aspects of illustration than a photographer. Now along comes Brian Wheeler to show that with modern equipment and patience photographs can be used for a bird identification reference book with superb results. This series of photographs is perhaps the finest collection of bird ID reference photos 1 have ever seen.

     For any current and well-rounded bird identification reference library, this book is a must. It will also serve as a good general reference. It is well worth the price, which seems to me to be quite reasonable considering the number and quality of color photographs. Many other natural history books of similar style, content, and format by other publishers are often twice (or more) the cost. If you have a specific love of raptors, you will likely pounce on this volume like a fox on a vole the moment you see it. It is sturdily constructed, handsomely crafted, and well researched. As Clayton White states in the fork\ ard, it will indeed be a very long time before something equal or better comes along.

Chuck LaRue, 3525 W. Lois Lane, Flagstaff, AZ 86001. Email:


Return to the Utah Birds Home Page