Common Black Hawk Guide (Buteogallus anthracinus)

Latest posts by Richelle Tieman (see all)

Growing up three months each year with the outlet delta of Maine’s Androscoggin Lake in full view and at the apex of its seasonal glory gave me a love of loons, hawks, ospreys, great blue herons, and eagles that has only evolved throughout my life.

Dead River is the name, but it’s a teeming ecosystem of life far from dead with sunning snapping turtles, aerial avian acrobatic activity, schools of racing fish, and small mammals too numerous to note. Calling out the names of hawks and eagles as we paddled along the river in our Old Town canoe, we would slow in awe as we craned to see the huge nests built high up in the trees with only the sun as a backdrop.

common black hawk flying

The Common Black Hawk may not make it as far north or east as New England, but when I visited my cousins in the Arizona canyons, I was lucky enough to see a few hawks near the river that I can safely identify as the Common Black Hawk.

In 2018, however, southern Maine almost miraculously played host to a Great Black Hawk – one of the closest kin to the Common Black Hawk!  I haven’t lost hope in seeing different species of hawks in Maine! Check out this article for the amazing details of this same hawk sighted in Texas and Maine!

Common Black Hawk Classification









Animalia Chordata Vertebrata Aves Falconiformes Accipitridae Buteogallus Buteogallus anthracinus
(Animals) (Chordates) (Vertebrates) (Birds) (Diurnal Birds of Prey) (Eagles, hawks, vultures, ospreys, and kites) (Black-hawks) (Common Black Hawk)

Catch Me, on-camera, If You Can

There is nothing common about the Common Black Hawk; it could be called the Rare Black Hawk unless you live in Arizona or New Mexico.  Making a square shape across the United States from San Francisco to Colorado, down to Texas, the Common Black Hawks only appear in specific locations in seven states during their breeding season.

In decades past, the hawk has also been officially named the Mexican Hawk and Central American Hawk because of its concentration in those areas. Today, some areas still refer to as the Mexican Hawk.

Wingspan and White

It’s all about the massively broad wings and this gorgeous black raptor’s intensely hued tail band.

A full appreciation is only gained after watching it in flight, gliding and soaring on thermals.  These full-bodied hawks have some of the widest wingspans of any raptor and sport quite an impressive silhouette, with the extended finger-like end feathers and short fan tail completing the picture.

Comparing two hawks for proper identification helps to focus on the placement of the Common Black Hawk’s tail bar (which is closer to the base than other hawks or eagle’s tail bars). and comparing the brilliant white luminosity of the Common Black Hawks,  When flying, their expansive, full wings create the distinct Buteos shape that identifies birds of prey in the United States.

What a gorgeous creature this Common Black Hawk is


Common Black Hawk Identification

North American Range

Breeding Only: Mostly in Arizona and New Mexico, rarely in Colorado, California, and Utah

South American Range

Breeding and Yearround: Frequent and commonplace in: 


Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Grenada, Aruba, and Curacao.

Also, in Northern Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia.

Rare in Guyana.


Savannas, Grasslands, Rainforests, and Forests.


  • Lowlands, at the edges of wooded rivers, and continuously flowing streams with tall trees.
  • In canyons and deserts that have wooded water corridors.
  • Near a coast or found inland following a large river.
  • The tropical range includes lowland rain forests, mountain rivers, and coastal mangrove swamps.
  • Also found in dunes, ponds, grasslands, and lagoons.

Size, Weight, and Wingspan

  • Average of 21 inches long, weighing 28 ounces with a 48-inch wingspan
  • Larger than a crow but smaller than a goose




  • Extremely broad rounded wings. Wing edges are feathered like fingertips. The tail is fan-shaped, full, and broad

Overall Color

  • Coal or Soot Black


  • Heavy, hooked bill of Medium orangish-yellow with a white patch behind the bill in front of the eyes


  • Thick, long, medium orangish-yellow legs with large sharp talons


  • A thick band of white feathers is evident on the tail base, and a thin white band stretches across the tail’s tip

common black hawk sitting on a tree

Geographic Range

The Common Black Hawk is found in the southwestern areas of California, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada. Common Black Hawks are non-migratory even though they are found in limited areas of the Southwest United States during the breeding season and tend to migrate to Mexico in the winter.

Their northernmost range is in the undisturbed waterways of San Francisco, and they are found at their southernmost points in Peru, Venezuela, Guyana, Ecuador, and Colombia.  Most Common Black Hawk sightings are in Mexico and all Central American countries.

black common hawk range


The habitat of the Common Black Hawk is always dependent upon a steady water supply with wooded areas on either side, preferably a large river or coastal lowlands. Sustained desert rivers, established mountain streams, marsh forests and low coastal areas are prime roosting and nesting sites.

In the United States, they are found in mature deciduous (mostly cottonwood) forested areas next to undisturbed permanent waterways in the lowlands.

Diet of the Common Black Hawk

The Common Black Hawk needs large trees for perching and brooding, and the nearby water source provides a habitat for the hawk’s diet, which consists of crabs, crayfish, fish, snakes, frogs, salamanders, small mammals, and birds. These hawks have a penchant for crabs, and in Mexico and Central America, they mainly live off crabs if they can! The Common Black Hawks will supplement their diet with insects and caterpillars if food supplies are low.

buteogallus anthracinus

Common Black Hawk Behavior

The Common Black Hawk is a diurnal (daytime) bird of prey belonging to the order Falconiformes. (Birds of prey are birds that hunt other animals for food). The Accipitridae family is the largest in the order, having more than 200 species and hundreds of subspecies. Known for their predatory expertise and strength, some routinely stalk animals of the same size.

Classification Confusion!

Cuban Black Hawk
Cuban Black Hawk

In the past, the Cuban Black Hawk (Buteogallus gundlachii) was attributed to being a subspecies of the Common Black Hawk, but now they are separate species. Once considered a separate species, the Mangrove Black Hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus subtilis) has joined the Common Black Hawk as a subspecies!

mangrove black hawk

This bird spends most of its time finding its next meal from a tree branch that overhangs moving water. Perching alongside waterways, even wading in to catch crabs and fish, it often moves up and down the river banks to determine the most opportune dining spot. The Common Black Hawk has been seen to walk into shallow water and flutter its wings, surprising fish and other prey.

When their meal is in plain sight, the hawk uses its wings to “herd” it towards the shore, where it is easily caught! Then, with talons outstretched, it snatches up the meal.

This meal-time activity comprises the day’s exercise, as this bird rarely reaches soaring heights except during breeding season. Many assume this bird is sedentary due to these long periods of perching to wait for food amongst the bushes and tree limbs, but that is far from the truth.

In reality, the independent Common Black Hawk is a bird of prey that prefers to live in wild, uncultivated locations and make a “living off the land.” Ever watchful and observant, their very existence relies on their stealth and ability to camouflage themselves and remain unseen.

Camouflaged by trees and underbrush, this black hawk waits motionless, invisible to its predators and prey.  These patient birds sit, perched among branches, for their next meal, and when it appears, they swoop down, diving steeply and capturing it with their talons, taking it apart with their hooked beak. Living in arid regions and relying on streams and rivers for survival, the Common Black Hawk spends much of the day scouring the ground and water for sustenance.

Common Black Hawks enjoy remote areas untouched by humans and will return to the same nest year after year. These hawks will, however, abandon nesting sites if land development encroaches on surrounding trees.

common black hawk on a branch

On Hawks Attacking Humans

Being birds of prey, hawks, in general, can be fiercely protective of their nest and territory, and if provoked during the breeding season, they will attack even humans.  The hawks are smart enough to know they are not going to kill and eat something of this size and ability, and their intention is only to scare off what they perceive is a danger to their nest.

Once they have sensed danger from humans, it does set a pattern in motion where all future nearby humans are at a greater risk for attack. That being said, hawks attacking humans are incredibly rare events (even though YouTube makes it seem like it happens every day) and seldom involve serious injury to humans! (Similarly, if a red hawk threatened our “nest” one day, we would also view other red hawks as threats!)


Common Black Hawks mate from late February to late May with one partner. During courtship, the male and female fly together, soaring often with their legs dangling and calling to each other. Aerial courtship dances are performed with the male and female touching talons while flying. The Common Black Hawk is known for performing fantastical mating rituals in the air for their mate. It is common to have up to four copulations daily during the mating season, with the male frequently hunting the food and feeding it to the female.

The nest is an average of 300 feet away from water and 100 feet up in the tree. The nest is bulky, made of sticks and mistletoe, and lined with leaves. The male brings most of the material for the nest, and the female does most of the construction.

Incubation is 40 days, and fledging occurs between 43 and 50 days after hatching. After leaving the nest, there is a period of 8 weeks that the babies are dependent upon their parents.  Eggs are two inches, and the average lifespan is 13 years. Incubation is carried out by both the male and the female.  Nests are made of sticks and mistletoe.

Soaring Common Black HawkNesting

The female Common Black Hawk lays one to two eggs, but one is more common, especially in the United States.  The male and the female incubate the eggs for 39 days, with the female taking charge of the nighttime watch and much of the day. Once the young hatch, the mother stays in the nest most of the time until the young leave the nest after six to eight weeks. The male hunts the food and brings it to the female so she can feed the young. When the babies leave the nest, they will move to nearby trees but rely on their parents for food and shelter for about 60 days. After ten weeks, the young hawks are adept at flying.

Juvenile Common Black Hawk

Juvenile Common Black Hawk

It’s easy to see why the Common Black Hawk could be mistaken for one of any of the dozen hawks of North America. They undergo so much color change that they look like entirely different birds! The coloring of the juvenile Common Black Hawk is brown to dark brown with white mottling and streaking. The underside is off-white with dark patches, and its tail has overall white barring.

A juvenile is categorized as being in its first year of life and has the features and coloring it did before leaving the nest.  An immature bird has features and coloring except that of an adult. Many larger birds, including some hawks, need more than one year to reach their adult “plumage” and can have upto four stages of feather coloring; however, the Common Black Hawk only has a juvenile plumage and an adult plumage.

Common Black Hawk Juvenile


The Common Black Hawk population is considered stable in Mexico, Central America, and South America.  In the United States, populations of the Black Hawks have diminished substantially, especially in New Mexico and Texas.  They are considered to be threatened in Texas.  There is a low reproduction rate, with only one to two eggs being laid each season. There are about 2,000,000 Common Black Hawks worldwide, with 250 pairs in the United States, and their conservation status is LC (least concern).


The largest threat to the Common Black Hawk is land development by humans. Loss of perennial streams and riparian wooded areas have ruined the hawk’s habitat due to a lack of tree regeneration (from over-mining forests) and water diversion strategies. Also included in the persistent threats are toxic chemical waste disposal, pollution, and illegal hunting.

The population of the Common Black Hawk is tenuous in the United States compared to other countries, and a specific effort to conserve the San Francisco, Colorado, and Gila Rivers would assist in protecting Common Black Hawks in the United States.

Identifying the Common Black Hawk

The Brilliant White of the Common Black Hawk

The tail’s brilliant, bright, white banding is an easy-to-remember identifying feature of the Common Black Hawk that remains consistent in both a juvenile and an adult. When young, the intense white plumage is seen in banding all over the bird, and when adult, the Common Black Hawks blazing white bands are contained in a wide strip at the tail base and a thin strip at the tail’s edge.

Several Similar Species

There are several closely related species in the Buteogallus genus, which literally means “Black Hawk.” The Common Black Hawk (Mexican Hawk), the Great Black Hawk (Brazilian Eagle), and the Zone-tailed Hawk. While the Great Black Hawk is the largest and heaviest, at almost twice the weight of the others, the Zone-tailed Hawk has the largest wingspan of 55 inches. Quite remarkable when you consider the Zone-tailed Hawk is the shortest and weighs the least of the three!

While the Zone-tailed Hawk and the Common Black Hawk share the same ranges, including parts of the Southwestern United States, the Great Black Hawk is found mainly in Central and South America. You won’t see the Great Black Hawk in the United States, and it is rare to find it on the coast of Mexico.

Common Black Hawk vs. Great Black Hawk

Note how similar the silhouettes are between the Common Black Hawk and Great Black Hawk, and both have strong flight feather barring. A distinguishing factor is the length of the Great Black Hawk’s legs, which extend past the wide white strip of the tail. Another consideration is the white speckled thighs of the Great Black Hawk compared to the pure black of the Common.  The coloring on the tail is not as bright as the Common Black Hawks’s glossy white swath.

On the left, the Common Black Hawk’s wingtips are separated to resemble long fingertips, while the Great Black Hawk’s wings are much less delineated, suggesting a different shape altogether.

Common Black Hawk vs. Great Black Hawk
Left: Common Black Hawk Right: Great Black Hawk

Common Black Hawk vs. Zone-Tailed Hawk

The Zone-tailed Hawk has paler underwings and two thick white bands on its tail farther down than does the Common Black Hawk. The Zone-tailed hawk’s wings are longer and less wide, with the underwings being paler and more gray in color compared to the rich golden brown of the Common Black Hawk’s underwings.

You’ll notice that the Common Black Hawk in the left picture has a tail that appears almost stubby, with its broad wings nearing the white band.  The Zone-tailed Hawk has ample space from the edge of the wingspan to its tail, and the tail takes on a longer and thinner appearance.

There is less yellow on the face of the Zone-tailed Hawk, and the color is more yellowish-gray. In contrast, the Common Black Hawk has a medium orangish-yellow coloring that is noticeably brighter.

The Zone-tailed Hawk also has noticeable dark edges at the wing tips that are set off by the light gray and white barring of the underwings. Black tail with white bands

Common Black Hawk vs. Zone-Tailed Hawk
Left: Common Black Hawk Right: Zone-tailed Hawk


Common Black Hawk Comparison Chart








Flight Shape

Zone-tailed Hawk


Buteo albonotatus

Southwestern United States, Mexico, Central America, and South America 20 inches 1.3 pounds Up to 55 inches
  • Flies leisurely and low over the treetops
  • Aggressively forages and protects its territory – known to attack humans
  • Grayish-black
  • Gray barring under feathers
  • Wide white bands across the tail
Smaller hawk with thinner wings than the Common Black Hawk and a longer tail
Great Black Hawk


Buteogallus urubitinga

Mexico, Central, and South America 24 inches 2.5 pounds Up to 50 inches
  • Soaring for prey, walking on the ground, and perching in trees
  • Very wary of humans
All black with gray mottling on the thighs and a very wide band of white covering most of the tail Lankier than the Common Black Hawk, with longer legs and tail (legs extend past the  white bar)
Common Black Hawk


Buteogallus anthracinus

Southwestern United States, Mexico, Central America, and South America 21 inches 1.7 pounds Up to 50 inches
  • Perched in trees over waterways, soaring in warmer weather
  • Will tolerate humans but will relocate
Soot black coloring with a wide bright white band across its tail



One wide white tail barring, broad wings, and long-fingered wingtips

Fun Facts about the Common Black Hawk

  • Common Black Hawks have superior eyesight and can see their next meal from 100 feet away.
  • Common Black Hawks are expert aerial acrobats and fight over food in mid-air.
  • Common Black Hawks can differentiate colors.
  • In CA, the Common Black Hawk has naturally mated with the Red-Shouldered Hawk in Sonoma County, creating a hybrid hawk! This is exceptionally rare.
  • Like most raptors, the female Common Black Hawk is larger than the males (sexually dimorphic), but the male and female share the same coloring.
  • A group of hawks has many collective nouns, including “boil,” “knot,” “spiraling,” “stream,” and “tower” of hawks.


Question: What type of hawks are black?

Answer: Many hawks include the color black in their overall appearance, but there are truly only two species of hawk that are named black.  The Common Black Hawk is all black with a wide band of white on its tail and ranges from a few southwestern states to Mexico, Central America, and Northern South America.
The Great Black Hawk, or Brazilian Eagle, is all black and has two wide white bands on its tail. It ranges from Mexico through Central America into mid-South America. These hawks are 21 to 24 inches long, have wingspans up to 50 inches, and eat fish, reptiles, and other aquatic prey.

Question: Where does the Common Black Hawk live?

Answer: In the U.S., it is difficult to spot a Common Black Hawk unless you are in a remote wooded area near a large stream or river canyon in the southwest. In Mexico and Central America, it is very common to sight this species of hawk that heavily populates mangrove forests, coastal lowlands, freshwater swamps, and marshes. They prefer undisturbed areas and will relocate if land development nears their territory.
In New Mexico, along the Gila River Basin, there have been many sightings of the Common Black Hawk. It also has been found in lowland areas of San Francisco and the Rio Grande.

Question: Do Hawks attack humans?

Answer: Hawks do not see humans as prey but view them as a threat to the safety of their nest. Hawks try to avoid humans and are very elusive at camouflaging themselves among high trees and building nests, sometimes 80 or 90 feet off the ground. However, if circumstances allow you to get close to a hawk’s nest, you have a chance of being attacked.  Usually, hawks will intentionally find a remote area far from any human activity, and it’s hard to get a close view of a hawk, never mind getting attacked by one! If you see a large nest, it’s best to remove yourself!

Question: What can I do if a hawk attacks me?

Answer: If a rare hawk attack does happen to you, stand your ground and wave your arms wildly, making loud noises jumping up and down. This should scare the hawk off and reinforce that you are stronger. Under no circumstances should you kill or injure a hawk. Hawks have been federally protected since 1918 by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MTBA), and most states also have separate laws protecting the hawk. You can face up to $15,000 in fines and six months in prison.

common black hawk bird

Final Thoughts on the Common Black Hawk

The Common Black Hawk is rare and beautiful to see, especially in parts of the southwest United States where their habitat is dwindling from land development and diverted waterways. With conservation efforts underway in parts of New Mexico and California, this population has attempted to nest again, which is fortunate. The Common Black Hawk shies away from human interaction and tries to thrive in undisturbed tall trees near large rivers, streams, and coastal areas.

If you see a large nest, stay away from it and call your local fish and wildlife office for advice. Nature has been pillaged by human activity since the beginning of time. Every remaining animal species deserves our admiration and protection so that we can learn to live side by side in harmony.  I hope we can reach this balanced peace sooner than we have been able with other humans!

I’ll leave you with an uplifting video (if there can be one) of a hawk attacking a chicken. It’s uplifting because the other barnyard animals run to the rescue! Check this out.

I’m going to fill my birdfeeder now. Happy bird watching!

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