Short-Tailed Hawk Guide

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The Short-tailed Hawk (Buteo brachyurus) is a species of raptor in the genus Buteo. Buteos are a large group of medium to large birds of prey that include about 28 species found on every continent except Antarctica. Members of this genus are generally broad-winged, broad-tailed, soaring birds. They have large feet with strong, long toes tipped with sharp talons that these birds use to hold and kill their prey. Like most birds of prey, birds in this genus have a sharp, hooked beak which they use to feed.

Buteos generally hunt from perches or from the air, where they can be seen soaring and watching for prey on the ground below. Once spotted from a perch or the air, the Buteo dives down to grab its prey before it can run into cover.

Like so many raptor species, female and male Buteos, such as Short-tailed Hawks, have different body sizes, with the females being noticeably larger than the males.

The Short-tailed Hawk is very closely related to the White-throated Hawk (Buteo albigula), and the two used to be considered a single species. Differences in altitudinal range and other differences indicate that these are two distinct species. The Short-tailed Hawk has two known and recognized subspecies.

  • B. b. brachyurus is found in South America. This subspecies is the smaller of the two and has a somewhat shorter tail. It is also more gray on the back and lacks any brown or rufous markings on the sides of the neck. The dark morph is quite rare in this subspecies.
  • B. b. fuliginosus is found in Florida and Central America. This subspecies is the larger of the two and has a somewhat longer tail. It is also more brown on the back and has brown or rufous markings on the sides of the neck. The dark morph is common in this subspecies.

Taxonomy at a Glance

  • Domaine: Eukaryota
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Accipitriformes
  • Family: Accipitridae
  • Genus: Buteo
  • Species: Buteo brachyurus

How to Identify a Short-tailed Hawk

Flying Short-tailed Hawk

Short-tailed Hawks are relatively small Buteos that are compact in body with broad, rounded wings and tails. In coloration, they are overall either dark and white or dark all over.

Short-tailed Hawks have two color morphs, a light morph, and a dark morph. In this way, this species is similar to other members of the Buteo genus.

Light Morph

Adult birds are all dark brown to black on the top of the head, back, and top side of the wings. The head has a hooded look with the dark color on top, reaching down across the cheeks but leaving the throat white. The tail is slightly greyer than the back, with subtle black barring or banding. The undersides are light on the throat, breast, belly, and underwing coverts which contrast with the flight feathers, which are dark on the underside.

Juvenile birds are similar to adults, but the cheeks are streaked with color instead of solid, and the underside are often creamy or buff colored instead of white.

Dark Morph

Adult birds are dark all over. Head, body, wings, and tail; upper and lower surfaces; all the bird is dark brown to black. The only light feathers are small areas on the forehead, the lores (area between the bill and the eyes), and some silvery color at the base of the flight feathers on the underside of the wing. These birds are very dramatic.

Juvenile birds are similar to adults, but they show white streaking or speckling on the throat, breast, belly, and underwing coverts.

In flight, this species has long, broad wings that they flap in stiff beats. These birds glide on flat wings with the wingtips turned up, and they soar on wings that are slightly raised in a shallow dihedral.

Where Do Short-tailed Hawks Live: Habitat

Andes Mountains

Short-tailed Hawks are found from the extreme southeastern USA, through Central America, across much of northern and central South America (although the distribution of Short-tailed Hawks in Columbia and northwestern Brazil is not well known).

In South America, east of the Andes Mountains, Short-tailed Hawks live in tall humid forests and along forest edges, particularly favoring lake shores, marshes, and other wet habitats. Elsewhere in their range, this species lives in wooded savannahs, cypress swamps, mangrove forests, and high pine-oak woodlands.

Northern populations of this species are migratory, with groups of migrating birds being seen in the Caribbean, southeast Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica. Elsewhere in their range, this species is generally sedentary, with young birds dispersing in many directions when they leave their parents’ territory. These birds are generally found relatively low in elevation, usually ranging from sea level to around 1,800 meters.

Short-tailed Hawk Diet and Feeding


Unusually for Buteos, the Short-tailed Hawk eats primarily birds. This is especially pronounced in Florida, where this species is something of a bird specialist. Short-tailed Hawks also eat small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects.

These hawks are visual hunters. They watch for prey from perches but more commonly hunt from the air, where they will hang in mid-air from as high as 800 feet above the ground, where they will orient themselves so that they are facing into the wind and hang nearly motionless, a behavior called “kiting.” When they spot prey, a Short-tailed Hawk will make a fast, steep dive to strike perched birds in trees or on the ground. Short-tailed Hawks rarely take birds in flight. Small prey items are often eaten on the wing.

Woodland edges are common habitat areas for Short-tailed Hawks to hunt. Some individual hawks return to favored edges and patrol them several times throughout a given day.

Short-tailed Hawk Breeding

Short-tailed Hawk courtship begins in January. During courtship, male Short-tailed Hawks circle slowly over the territory they have claimed and periodically make bounding, swooping flights, often with exaggerated and slow wingbeats. If a female is interested, she may join the male in flight, and they may even touch or lock their talons. She may also perch below and wait for the male to bring her something. When they see a female perch expectantly in this way, males will deliver a prey item or a stick to the female in the hope that this encourages them to mate.

Short-tailed Hawk Nesting

Short-tailed Hawks build their nests in the tops of tall trees at least 30 feet off the ground and up to 60 feet high. The nests themselves are made from sticks and moss. Later, this platform will be lined with leaves from nearby plants. The nest has a depression in the middle to hold the eggs that can be as much as a foot deep. Females and males will build several nests within their territory, though the female does the majority of the construction. The female is also the one to choose which of these potential nests to actually use and lay the eggs in.

Short-tailed Hawk clutches contain two eggs. Incubation lasts from 34 to 39 days. Both adults take turns incubating the clutch of eggs. During incubation, leaves are added as a lining to the nest. Both adults help with this process.

Once the eggs hatch, the young birds grow in the nest for a time, but it is not known how long this time is. Once they do fledge, young birds usually only travel as far as some nearby branches. They gain further strength and size by climbing through the nest tree, practicing flapping, and beginning to make short hopping flights from branch to branch. A young hawk in this developmental stage is called a “brancher.” Once the branchers begin taking longer flights, they are able to explore more of their parents’ territory, and also to begin practicing to hunt. Family groups remain together for several weeks before departing on the fall migration.

Short-tailed Hawk Eggs

The two eggs of a clutch are laid in the depression in the middle of the nest. The eggs are oval in shape and are about 2.0 inches in length, though the number of eggs that have been measured is small. Their base color is a light blueish-white. Sometimes, this base color is speckled with reddish or light brown spots.

Short-tailed Hawk Population

Short-tailed Hawk

No complete estimate of the Short-tailed Hawk population exists. Flying Short-tailed Hawks are relatively common in parts of their range, so it is likely that the total population is over 100,000, but this is an incredibly imprecise number. Approximately 500 Short-tailed Hawks can be found in Florida, but that represents such a small and peripheral component of the population that it is unlikely to be a useful reference. More research on this aspect of Short-tailed Hawk ecology is very much needed.

Is the Short-tailed Hawk Endangered?

Probably not. The very wide geographic range of the Short-tailed Hawk means that it is unlikely for all populations of this species to be threatened simultaneously. Therefore, at the species-wide scale, Short-tailed Hawks are of low conservation concern. However, so little is known about this species that undetected threats may exist. And some populations or impacts are known to be issues for this species.

One example is in Florida, where the Short-tailed Hawk population that lives there is small and very reliant on lowland forests for wintering habitat. These lowlands of Florida are very much in danger due to sea-level rise, and so this population of Short-tailed Hawks is more threatened than other populations. Drainage of wet forestlands and deforestation across much of South America are both examples of likely long-term threats to this species. Other threats include collisions with windows and other human-made structures, collisions with vehicles, and gunshot wounds.

Short-tailed Hawk Habits

Short-tailed Hawks are generally solitary. They come together to form pairs during the breeding season, and larger numbers can form groups that migrate together, at least for a time. For the rest of the year, each bird lives separately.

Short-tailed Hawk Predators

American Crows

Adult Short-tailed Hawks have no known predators. However, this may be more to do with the lack of research on this species rather than to the actual absence of predators. American Crows have been observed raiding Short-tailed Hawk nests for eggs and/or young, but again, it is likely that other nest predators exist but have simply not been seen and recorded.

Short-tailed Hawk Lifespan

The lifespan of the Short-tailed Hawk is unknown. Other similarly-sized hawks in the genus Buteo often live for 15-20 years, so this seems a reasonable estimate, but research into this aspect of Short-tailed Hawk biology is needed.


Question: Why do Short-tailed Hawks line their nests with fresh leaves?

Answer: This is a behavior that is thought to help cool the eggs during the hot tropical and subtropical days.

Question: Why is so little known about Short-tailed Hawks?

Answer: Short-tailed Hawks are one of the least studied members of this genus. This is due in part to the relatively remote areas where they live and how easily overlooked this species is. It is also due to the widespread underrepresentation of tropical species and those found in developing nations as the focus of scientific research efforts.

Question: Do Short-tailed Hawks actually have a short tail?

Answer: Not really. This is a bit of a misnomer because the tail of a Short-tailed Hawk is not especially short in relation to its body size compared to other Buteos. It is unclear how this species came to be called by this name.

Research Citations

  • Ferguson-Lees, J. and D. A. Christie. (2001). Raptors of the World. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY, USA.
  • Johnsgard, P. A. (1990). Hawks, eagles, and falcons of North America. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C., USA.
  • Pyle, P. (1957). Identification Guide to North American Birds: a Compendium of Information on Identifying, Ageing, and Sexing “near-Passerines” and Passerines in the Hand. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, CA, USA.
  • Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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