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Birds of Prey of Australia: A Field Guide

Birds of Prey of Australia: A Field Guide

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Birds of Prey of Australia: A Field Guide

346 pagine
3 ore
Jul 1, 2019


Raptors are popular and iconic birds, and are important ecologically, with some species listed as threatened. Yet they are among the most difficult birds to identify. This fully updated third edition of the popular and award-winning field guide Birds of Prey of Australia contains two sections: a field guide with distribution maps, detailed illustrations and information on identification; and a handbook which includes an overview of the current knowledge about raptors, including their biology, ecology and behaviour. An illustrated section on difficult-to-distinguish species pairs is also included, along with new photographs.

Birds of Prey of Australia will appeal to a wide range of readers, including ornithologists, raptor biologists, birdwatchers, wildlife rescuers/carers, raptor rehabilitators, zookeepers, naturalists, bushwalkers, ecological consultants, fauna authorities, park rangers, state forestry personnel and students.

Jul 1, 2019

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Birds of Prey of Australia - Stephen Debus











© Stephen Debus, BirdLife Australia (text) 2019; Jeff Davies, BirdLife Australia (artwork) 2019

All rights reserved. Except under the conditions described in the Australian Copyright Act 1968 and subsequent amendments, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, duplicating or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. Contact CSIRO Publishing for all permission requests.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the National Library of Australia.

ISBN: 9781486311118 (pbk.)

ISBN: 9781486311125 (epdf)

ISBN: 9781486311132 (epub)

Published by:

CSIRO Publishing

Locked Bag 10

Clayton South VIC 3169


Telephone: +61 3 9545 8400



Front cover: Adult female Little Eagle (light morph) Photo: © David Whelan/

Back cover: Author photo: Sofia Debus

Set in 9.5/12.5 Adobe Minion Pro and Myriad Pro

Edited by Peter Storer

Cover design by Andrew Weatherill

Typeset by Desktop Concepts Pty Ltd, Melbourne

Printed in China by Toppan Leefung Printing Limited

CSIRO Publishing publishes and distributes scientific, technical and health science books, magazines and journals from Australia to a worldwide audience and conducts these activities autonomously from the research activities of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of, and should not be attributed to, the publisher or CSIRO. The copyright owner shall not be liable for technical or other errors or omissions contained herein. The reader/user accepts all risks and responsibility for losses, damages, costs and other consequences resulting directly or indirectly from using this information.

The paper this book is printed on is in accordance with the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council®. The FSC® promotes environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests.


BirdLife Australia

Preface to the first edition

Preface to the second edition

Preface to the third edition

About the author

About the illustrator

Introduction: Birds of prey


Species descriptions


Difficult species-pairs


Osprey, genus Pandion

Small kites, genus Elanus

Pernine kites

Large kites and sea-eagles

Goshawks and sparrowhawks, genus Accipiter

Australasian endemic hawks, genus Erythrotriorchis

Harriers, genus Circus

Booted eagles, genera Aquila and Hieraaetus

Falcons, genus Falco

Threats, conservation and the future




BirdLife Australia

BirdLife Australia is the national non-profit organisation for the conservation of birds, finding solutions to the threats they face and inspiring action to ensure birds and their habitats flourish. BirdLife Australia produces a range of publications including: Australian Birdlife, a quarterly magazine; Emu – Austral Ornithology, a quarterly scientific journal; and Australian Field Ornithology, an online journal of bird study. It also maintains a comprehensive library, and operates a network of Branches in all states as well as Special Interest Groups, Reserves and Observatories. Membership is open to anyone interested in birds and their habitats, and concerned about the future of our avifauna. For further information, contact: BirdLife Australia, Suite 2–05, 60 Leicester Street, Carlton, VIC 3053, or visit

BirdLife Australia Raptor Group

The BirdLife Australia Raptor Group (formerly the Australasian Raptor Association) is a subgroup of BirdLife Australia, acting as a focus for those with an interest in diurnal and nocturnal raptors of the Australian region. The group’s broad aims are to promote raptor research, conservation and management and to foster communication and cooperation in the region. It publishes a newsletter, Boobook. BARG holds occasional conferences, a reflection of the high professional and amateur interest in raptors. Proceedings of past conferences (held in 1989 and 1996) were published as Australian Raptor Studies in 1993 and Australian Raptor Studies II in 1997. Abstracts from the 2003, 2008, 2010 and 2013 conferences were published in Boobook, and summaries of some of the 2008 papers were also published in Wingspan (as the BirdLife Australia magazine was then called). Some recent conference papers have appeared in the scientific literature. Contact BirdLife Australia or visit the BARG website: and navigate via Special Interest Groups.

Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds

The Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds (HANZAB), produced by Birds Australia (now BirdLife Australia) and to which Stephen Debus contributed, provides a comprehensive synthesis of knowledge of all the birds that occur in this region as at the time of production (seven volumes, 1990 to 2006). It continues to influence the direction of research and conservation of Australasian and Antarctic birds, as reflected, for instance, by recent publications on birds of prey.

Preface to the first edition

Birds of prey, by virtue of their powers of flight and vision, their imposing manner and their impressive predatory capabilities, have captured the imagination of humans. Although in recent times birds of prey have not always been thought of favourably, they have long been valued as agents of the hunt in the ancient art of falconry, or as totemic figures in tribal cultures. Today, the first close encounter with a bird of prey can leave a lasting impression. To a few, like myself, it means a lifelong fascination with these magnificent birds. For me, the catalyst was the awesome sight of Wedge-tailed Eagles in flight at close range, juxtaposed with their sorry corpses strung up on paddock fences, in the Riverina of New South Wales in the 1960s. Since then I have seen all the Australian species in the field, and become privileged to know several species intimately by observing their breeding cycle and studying their biology.

Notwithstanding the animosity of certain sections of the community, mainly those concerned with pigeon-racing and livestock, birds of prey still generate much interest. They have a high profile in television documentaries and popular literature, and are increasingly in the public eye as individuals fall foul of the dangers of the modern industrial world. Wildlife rescue services are inundated with injured, orphaned or poisoned birds. For those coming into contact with birds of prey, questions arise repeatedly: What kind is it? What does it eat? How does it live? The answers are crucial if wildlife managers and rehabilitators are to do their job properly.

[In the 1960s], for a boy in a small country town, little relevant information was available. In the way of books there was Cayley’s What Bird is That? and Leach’s Australian Bird Book (both poor as field guides), a British book that said a little about European birds of prey, and a fictional book on the Peregrine Falcon in North America. The appearance of Slater’s Field Guide to Australian Birds in 1970 was a milestone.

Today there are many good field guides, photographic books, a major reference handbook and a treatise on the biology and ecology of Australian birds of prey. Nevertheless, good ornithologists can have difficulty identifying some raptors, even in the hand, and many find them baffling. Yet they are easy to identify if one knows what to look for, even at great distances.

My purpose in this book is to provide an inexpensive guide to the Australian raptors that will enable laypeople and bird enthusiasts alike to identify raptors, whether in the field or in the hand, and to learn a little about the birds’ biology. It is intended to supplement rather than compete with the other books by, I hope, taking a fresh approach to the problem of identification.

This book draws heavily on volume 2 of the Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds (HANZAB), prepared by the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (RAOU) and published by Oxford University Press in 1993. Much of the information is condensed from that volume, and the colour plates of raptors in flight are reproduced here. I also gratefully acknowledge Lynx Edicions for permission to use some of the information on Australian raptors in the Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 2. Original research [on morphology] by David Eades, Danny Rogers and David James, section editors of HANZAB, is incorporated in the species descriptions.

I gratefully acknowledge the early encouragement and support of my parents, Graham and Beatrice Debus, and the later encouragement of many colleagues, including Dr Peter Jarman (my graduate supervisor at the University of New England), Dr David Baker-Gabb (RAOU Director 1992–97), and latterly my boss at UNE, Dr Hugh Ford. I thank my referees, Tom Aumann and Dr Penny Olsen, who commented helpfully on a draft of the manuscript, and Peter Higgins (co-editor of HANZAB), who cast an RAOU eye over it. The responsibility for any errors is mine.

Preface to the second edition

The impetus for a second edition came mainly from ongoing enquiries about the book’s availability, after its last printing in 2001, and overseas online booksellers charging extortionate prices for the first edition since it went out of print. Evidently there was still a demand for the guide, despite its being 10 years out of date. This, coupled with the growth in knowledge of Australian raptors over the past decade and DNA studies that have revolutionised our understanding of raptor taxonomic relationships, indicated that a complete revision of the book was clearly due. The rise of digital photography has also enabled critical review of the field characters of Australian raptors, and the highlighting of some previously overlooked or understated ones. Therefore, this is a second edition in the true bibliographic sense, completely revised and updated in the light of new knowledge (including personal field study of further species since 1998).

With increasing scientific knowledge of our raptors, it is apparent that some old lore is incorrect or suspect. The early ‘greats’, such as Gould, Diggles, North, Mathews and their natural-historian collectors and informants, got it right to the extent possible in those days. However, we have to doubt some of the statements from certain grazier-naturalists and other amateur ornithologists in the early to mid 20th century, who were influenced by the prevailing negative attitude to raptors, and the lack of information on field identification. Consequently, bird books and some articles antedating HANZAB might be unreliable on raptor lore (with the notable exception of original works by raptor specialists Frank Morris, Jack and Lindsay Cupper, David Hollands and Humphrey Price-Jones). Similarly, information from some amateur birders up to at least the 1980s, and even today in some databases such as bird atlases, might be doubtful in some respects. For instance, the more I revisit certain historical sightings and accounts of rare species such as the Square-tailed Kite, Red Goshawk or Grey and Black Falcons from the 1930s to 1980s (and even later), the more I doubt some of them. If there is a conflict between what the pre-HANZAB books or articles say and the recent scientific literature (see bibliography), favour the latter.

Publication of this edition by CSIRO has freed up the imposed format of the first edition. At the helpful suggestion of John Manger, this edition is reorganised in field-guide format with identification text opposite single-species plates, as a double-page spread for each species. The ‘split images’ at the end of the field-guide section were originally the brainchild of Nick Mooney and Greg Czechura, who used them to compare anatomy between, and flight attitudes (soaring versus gliding) within, species; it seemed a logical extension to adapt the idea to compare and contrast similar species in flight.

I thank John Manger (CSIRO) and Adrienne de Kretser (Righting Writing) for editing the text. I thank BirdLife Australia, as custodian of the HANZAB plates, and especially Sid Cowling and Graeme Hamilton, for permitting the plates to be digitised and supplied by the State Library of Victoria; also Madeleine Say and her team at the Library for supplying the scans. This facility enabled digital manipulation of images (expertly, by Pilar Aguilera and her team at CSIRO) to achieve the effect in the reorganised plates and the ‘difficult species-pairs’ section. Thanks also to Naomi Dowsett (CSIRO) for drawing the wing profiles. I thank Paul Setchell, critical user of the first edition, for helpful advice on making the book more user-friendly this time.

The support and assistance of the people named in the first edition continue to be appreciated. I also thank Tony (A.B.) Rose, whose willing analyses of raptor prey remains enabled many collaborative studies of raptor diets, and the many other colleagues who participated in raptor-watching projects since 2000; they have contributed significantly to the growth in raptor knowledge. I thank Chris Barnes, Chris Field, Ákos Lumnitzer (, Deborah Pearse (, Trevor Quested, David Stowe ( and David Whelan ( for supplying photographs, and Glenn Ehmke (BirdLife Australia) for producing the maps. Finally, I thank my wife Sofia for her constant love and support.

Preface to the third edition

After more than 5 years, it seemed timely to update this guide with a fully revised third edition, rather than another reprint, partly to complement and serve as a companion to Richard Seaton’s brainchild Australian Birds of Prey in Flight: A Photographic Guide (CSIRO Publishing, 2019). In addition, most species (including the least-studied species in 2012) have had significant new research papers published on them, such that substantial chunks of this guide require revision. Although it is still true that the species most in need of conservation action are certain eagles, arid-zone species and endemic bird-hunters, the Black-breasted Buzzard, Pacific Baza, Brahminy Kite, Grey Falcon and Black Falcon are now much better known than they were. A glance at the updated bibliography herein reveals that these species have each had between two and five dedicated studies conducted on them since 2012, and dietary and behavioural data on the Red Goshawk (formerly summarised in HANZAB and a generally unavailable RAOU report) are now in journal papers too. However, I need to correct a misconception in one review of Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds (CSIRO Publishing, 2017). The situation is not as dramatically improved as suggested – the bibliography in the eagle book lists almost everything written on those birds since HANZAB, including minor notes, whereas the bibliography in this guide is intended to highlight only major or significant studies and observations. So, the real measure of progress is to compare the bibliographies in the second and third editions of this guide.

In this edition I have tried to incorporate helpful and constructive reviews of the second edition, as well as updating the text with new information, including new vagrant raptors that have reached the Australian continent, or may do soon because they have occurred on islands off the tropical Australian coast or in Torres Strait.

One major aspect requiring substantial revision is that of raptor taxonomy, based on the latest DNA evidence. There have been recent DNA studies on: the Osprey; some goshawks and sparrowhawks; the endemic Australo-Papuan hawk genera; the harriers, and the implications for a large, artificial ‘Accipiter’ genus; the booted eagles; and the falcons. These findings are reflected in the treatment of the Osprey as a single global species, and the Red Goshawk has moved herein to a position between the accipiters and the harriers.

This edition replaces some photographs in the second edition, and adds some additional ones on ages, sexes or morphs. I thank David Whelan and Mat Gilfedder in particular for providing new photos. David’s photographs are showcased at I gratefully acknowledge the many colleagues who collaborated on (and sometimes drove) the projects that expanded the bibliography for half the species in this edition: Tom Aumann, George Baker, David Baker-Gabb, Chris Barnes, Alice Bauer, Tony Baylis, David Charley, Keith Fisher, James Fitzsimons, Heather Janetzki, Candice Larkin, Hans Lutter, Bernie McRitchie, Geoff Mitchell, Ben Nottidge, Bill O’Donnell, Jerry Olsen, Don Owner, Russell Palmer, Jeremy Rourke, Marlis Schoeb, Jason Searle, Leah Tsang, Fred van Gessel, Robert Werner, David Whelan and Andrew Zuccon. I also commend the people who rose to the challenge on the other little-known species (Black-breasted Buzzard, Pacific Baza, Brahminy Kite, Australian Hobby, Grey Falcon) and so expanded, or will soon expand, the bibliography on them: Allan Briggs, Mark Carter, Keith Fisher, Faye Hill, Immy Janse, Andrew Ley, Craig Morley, Pete Nunn, Chris Pavey, Will Riddell, Jonny Schoenjahn, Brian Tynan, Richard Waring, Chris Watson and Lois Wooding.

I note with sadness the passing of A.B. (Tony) Rose and Trevor Quested since the second edition: both are acknowledged therein (and Tony was justly awarded BirdLife Australia’s Hobbs Medal for his outstanding contribution to ornithology). I dedicate this book to the memory of my late parents Graham and Beatrice Debus, who passed away in 2016 and 2017.

I thank Mat Gilfedder for generously providing the distribution maps, originally prepared for Australian Birds of Prey in Flight and derived from records submitted to eBird. On request, the HANZAB line drawings in the first edition, by Mike Bamford, Nicolas Day, Kate Gorringe-Smith and Frank Knight, are reinstated; thanks go to John

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