Swainson’s Hawk with Damage to the Feathers of the Underwing Coverts

/, Birds, Centennial Valley, Montana, Swainson's Hawks/Swainson’s Hawk with Damage to the Feathers of the Underwing Coverts

Swainson's Hawk with feather damage to the underwing covertsSwainson’s Hawk with feather damage to the underwing coverts – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/1600, ISO 400, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

Two days ago I spotted an adult Swainson’s Hawk resting on a rocky hillside in the Centennial Valley of Montana. I took a few photos of the hawk with my teleconverter on and then removed it hoping that when the bird lifted off I would be able to take some flight shots of it without clipping the wing tips. The hawk walked up the hill a short distance and before long it did take flight and I was able to take several photos of it (see below) and the hawk landed on the ground at the top of the hill near some fence posts where part of the bird was in the shade. After taking a few more images of the bird we took our leave to head up a canyon to try to locate more birds.

The canyon held a few birds and I took a few images there of a pair a Golden Eagles soaring way too far away. I sat for a few minutes to review images for sharpness at 100% on my camera LCD screen when I noticed what appeared to be “singed” feathers on the Swainson’s Hawk’s underwing coverts in its right wing, see the insert in the photo above.

I say “singed” because the feathers looked kind of blackened and deformed. I don’t know what could have caused that kind of damage to the feathers and I also do not know if there is damage to the underwing coverts of the left wing because I never had a clear view of it. At first I thought the feathers had been burned somehow but that doesn’t make sense because there was no damage to the wingtips and I believe those would have been singed first if the cause had been a fire.

Feather mites and lice could have caused the damage to the hawk’s underwing coverts. One other thought I had was that perhaps this hawk has been taking care of chicks and that there was something on the nest that caused the feather damage but that seems far fetched to me.

I simply don’t know what caused this kind of feather damage and I hope that someone can give me a better idea of what was going on with this Swainson’s Hawk.

Swainson's Hawk with feather damage to underwing coverts in flightSwainson’s Hawk with feather damage to underwing coverts in flight – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/2000, ISO 400, Nikkor 500mm VR, natural light, not baited

I took a few more images of the hawk after leaving the canyon but those images didn’t show any more damage to the feathers of this hawk than the earlier images had.

The Swainson’s Hawk had no trouble flying though and I hope that despite the feather damage I could see that the bird lives a long life and will be fit for its long migration this fall.

Life is good.



  1. Randal Sokolik July 15, 2017 at 3:33 pm

    Any chance there are any landfills in the area with methane “vent candles”? We have a problem with raptors-birds being singed in the NJ Meadowlands -online searches show them across the country. Flame’s invisible and some are on 24/7 others on timer/sensers. The landfills attract raptor food sources.

  2. Elephants Child July 15, 2017 at 1:52 pm

    I am so glad to learn that the damage doesn’t prevent flight.

  3. Pepe Forte July 15, 2017 at 12:22 pm

    Fascinating photos and explanation. Thanks.

  4. Laura Culley July 15, 2017 at 11:05 am

    Hmmm…Louise Shimmel (along with April) would be your best resource(s) for this (that I know of and I’ve been out of a lot of loops for a while now). I’m thinking an electrical burn of some sort, but I’m not an expert, nor do I play one on TV! 🙂 Thankful that the bird is still able to fly and hoping the molt will take care of most of the damage and that the feather follicles aren’t damaged. Best case scenario is the molt will fix ALL of the damage, however, the molt should be well underway at this time of the season so it’s possible that only some of the feathers would be replaced this year. So sorry this bird ran into (probably) a human-caused danger. Sigh!

  5. Patty Chadwick July 15, 2017 at 9:01 am

    Whatever happened to that bird, it seems to be OK, thank goodness! Hopefully, it can avoid whatever caused that damage in the future…

  6. April Olson July 15, 2017 at 8:57 am

    It looks like a wrist and alula damage. It looks like an older injury, it has new pin feathers growing in. Can’t tell without bird in hand. Hope it recovers and can fly for migration.

  7. Jo Smith July 15, 2017 at 7:54 am

    What are the blue flowers? So glad that the damage does not seem to bother this beauty.

  8. Glen Fox July 15, 2017 at 5:48 am

    How about an electrical wire burn? They definitely looked singed. That is not parasite damage or abnormal development.

    • Mia McPherson July 15, 2017 at 6:20 am

      Glen, that is a very plausible explanation and I never even thought about that. Thank you for your input

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