- South Carolina Birds Guide - November 23, 2022
- White-Tailed Hawk Guide (Geranoaetus albicaudatus) - November 15, 2022
- Zone-Tailed Hawk Guide (Buteo albonotatus) - October 30, 2022
Everything Guide to the White-Tailed Hawk
- Stocky and Large with Broad Wings
- Conservation: Low Concern
- Resident only – Non-migratory
- Diet: Mammals, reptiles, birds
- Listen to the White-Tailed Hawk here and here
- Watch the White-tailed Hawk fly here!
I love the White-tailed Hawk because it has the same color of eyes (as well as here) as I do! They are green hazel and a rare color for a hawk’s eyes! Another reason I like this bird is that it could be called the “Master of Disguise” and be featured in the Bourne Identity movies with all the different costumes and patterns it wears! This hawk is unique for the number of times it changes its feathers. It takes four or five years for the White-tailed hawk to achieve its adult plumage, and before the luminescent white takes over, it looks like a dark brown hawk with a gray tail. ( Like the Auger buzzard or short-tailed hawk).
The picture of the White-tailed Hawk above looks like there is a second white bird underneath the gray wings! Finding gorgeous birds with unique designs by Mother Nature is a hobby of mine passed down from my grandmother to my father and then to me! Of all the fascinating creatures on this earth, I would be a bird if I could choose. Soaring and flying, diving at speeds faster than my car can go, that’s living the high life! (Pun intended).
White-Tailed Hawk Quick Stats
|Southern coastal Texas
Discontinuous regions of Mexico, Central, and South America
|Coastal prairie, savannas||18 – 20 inches||2 – 3 pounds||51 inches (4 feet and 3 inches)||11 years||Non-aggressive, diurnal, monogamous|
Why are White-Tailed Hawks so Special?
- The White-tailed Hawk has extremely wide and long wings that provide excellent leverage for “kiting” – a type of flight where the bird leans into the wind and flaps its wings just enough to hover over the same spot in mid-air
- The pure white body, tail, and underside of the wings make the White-tailed Hawk unique, as most North American hawks have a dark brown coloring.
- In keeping with raptor tradition, hawks bring a random object into their nests that serve no apparent purpose other than to serve as a “calling card” of some sort, and the White-tailed Hawk’s signature item is an extra long stick that serves no purpose to the nest except as decoration!
- Cow dung is a favorite material used by White-tailed Hawks to strengthen their nests
- Northern Mockingbirds often create a nest in the same bush as White-tailed Hawks, probably looking for protection from predators!
- It takes the male and female White-tailed hawks a month to complete their nest!
- During mating season, the male will dive to the ground, walk around and start yanking on grass and other vegetation as a courtship display!
- The only North American hawk to have a white tail with a black band on it!
- It is illegal to own a white hawk in Mexico.
White-tailed Hawks are also known by their Spanish names (Aguililla Cola Blanca, Aguilucho Alas Largas), the French version (Buse à queue blanche), and in Portuguese, their name is Gavião-de-Cauda-Branca. Scientific organizations have put the White-tailed hawk into both the Buteo and the Geranoaetus Genera, both acceptable classifications. When the White-tailed Hawk is in the Buteo Genus, it is the only hawk with a black band on a white tail.
|(Animals)||(Chordates)||(Birds)||Hawks, Eagles, Vultures, and Kites||Eagles, Hawks, Kites, Old World Vultures||Hawks or buzzards/ Crane-eagles||White-Tailed Hawk|
Sub-species of the White-tailed Hawk
- Geranoaetus albicaudatus hypospodius – This is the only white-tailed Hawk sub-species that live in the United States, making homes in southern Texas along the Rio Grande and eastern coast. This sub-species continues south into parts of Central America and to the northern part of South America.
- Geranoaetus albicaudatus colonus – In South America, Colombia to Suriname, and then south to the mouth of the Amazon River, in Brazil.
- Geranoaetus albicaudatus albicaudatus – This sub-species of the White-tailed hawks is found in South America. Their northernmost range is Brazil, from the southern Amazon rainforest to Bolivia, Paraguay, and finally to the center of Argentina.
Range of the White-Tailed Hawk
- Green=White-tailed Hawk (hypospodius only)
- Purple=other White-tailed Hawk sub-species
In coastal and southeastern Texas, the White-tailed Hawk is a common sight, making a home in grasslands and native prairies with succulents like the yucca. When perched, they choose telephone poles, shrubs, and trees. These are non-migrating birds whose range is entirely year-round resident status from the southernmost United States to southern South America.
The White-tailed Hawk does not migrate and maintains one residence year-round.
Nests 10 to 150 feet above sea level
Sub-Tropical and Tropical
- Coastal prairies with cacti and mesquite
- Savannas – Transitional areas between deserts and forests that are dry except for one season and prone to wildfires.
The White-tailed Hawk prefers open grasslands with little or no tree canopylike open savannas. Several types of this scrubby terrain are habitable to the White-tailed hawks: grassland, shrubland, tree savannas, and woodlands.
- Woodlands have light, random patches of thin shade made from widely spaced trees, with shrubs and grassy vegetation
- Grasslands do not have shrubs or trees but rather scrubby vegetation, grass, and open land
- Shrubland is an open grassy area with random shrubs but no trees
- Tree savannas are open grassy plains with random trees but no shrubs or shade
Savannas are also characterized by their lack of water availability, with most rainfall only occurring during one season. Savannas do not have cold winters like prairies do and are found in warm to hot climates, such as that found in Africa, South America, Australia, India, and Thailand.
Another common trait of savannas is their proclivity for wildfires.
|Top/Underside Color||Rich, slate grey/white|
|Tail||Bright White with a bottom black band|
|Markings||Rust-colored shoulder patches and a wide black band near the tail end|
|Other Identifiers||Hazel eyes, beak’s cere is light green|
The White-tailed Hawk’s wings are one of the first things you notice about this glorious patterned raptor, and their exceptional length and massively broad form make the tail look small in comparison! The wings are slightly curved into an arc at the bottom, sweeping up to meet the body. The tips of the longest wings reach out and separate like pointing fingers.
The inner linings of the wings are white but get progressively dark on the primary flight feathers, with very fine and light banding only visible when close. The wing feathers extend past the tail when the White-tailed Hawk is perched.
The tail of the White-tailed Hawk looks digitally printed with the immaculate black band at the bottom, forming an almost perfect semi-circle that flows with the tail shape. The extreme tips of the tail are barely dipped in white, and the effect is an amazingly beautiful design.
Seeing the back of the White-tailed hawk, you first notice the soft gray of its head, then the deep, rich slate gray color of its wings and contrasting rust patches on each shoulder. The patches range from only the shoulders on some hawks to extending out until the top bend of the wing in others.
The underside body of an adult White-tailed Hawk is pure white from its throat down to the tip of its tail, the only exception being the defining black tail stripe.
The legs and feet of the White-tailed Hawk are featherless, relatively long, and medium orange in color. The talons are black.
The White-tailed Hawk is sometimes mistaken for an eagle with its huge wings, and because this hawk goes through many color “morphs,” it can be identified as several other hawk species when it has a juvenile plumage and the tail band is yet to appear.
Immature White-tailed Hawks are dark brown with a light gray tail (no banding) and a dark brownish underside speckled with white and a white patch on the chest.
Focus on the Tail!
This hawk is very difficult to mistake due to its stark white tail with a perfectly symmetrical black band at the bottom of it! If the tail is not visible, look for the two reddish brown should patches on its back, the pure white underside with the wing’s lower half graying into a sooty black at the tips.
The Behavior of the White-Tailed Hawk
White-tailed Hawks are usually non-aggressive raptors, and rarely has one ever attacked and made contact with a human (even when their nest is in danger). These are shy hawks, mostly quiet, and will even tolerate humans close to a nest with young in it. Before the young are born, the female will swoop around a human but rear sharply upward when within a foot of the person.
There are few instances of the White-tailed hawk fighting with other birds that were not prey, and the Great Horned Owl is the main raptor threat for the White-tailed Hawk. Interesting to note that when their nest is approached, the White-tailed hawks will immediately fly up into the air to watch the predator from directly above. This allows a longer period to determine how close the intruder is planning to get before the hawk will attack. This is in contrast to other hawks that don’t flush out of the nest so soon, and when they do, it is to make a powerful direct attack, not to observe the intruder!
There is not much active pursuing involved with their meal selection, with soaring and perching being the two methods of scouting out prey.
Diet and Feeding
The large White-tailed Hawks feed on a diet of mostly small mammals such as gophers, rats, shrews, mice, and rabbits. The birds they prey on are Mallards, Chickens, Doves, and Roadrunners. Lizards, frogs, snakes, crayfish, blue crabs, centipedes, grasshoppers, and other large insects round out their nutrition. This hawk is also known to eat roadkill if food supplies are low.
The White-tailed Hawk takes a more lenient approach than other hawk species when hunting for food, preferring to perch and wait or to hover in the air, scouting out its next meal. Their mode of capturing prey is to drop quickly in a direct vertical, using their talons to grab the unsuspecting mammal, bird, or reptile, carrying it back to their perch to eat.
This hawk adheres to the adage “the early bird gets the worm,” with their meal forage beginning an hour after sunrise and lasting until sunset. This bird is one hard worker when it comes to its daily menu. Birds as large as a crow is on their watch list, as well as small insects. These are food generalists, and White-tailed hawks are not choosy!
Interestingly, when brush fires are in the grasslands, mostly juvenile White-tailed Hawks congregate in mass numbers to prey on the mammals and reptiles fleeing from the fire.
Courtship and Mating
The mating season starts mid-winter for the White-tailed Hawk and lasts usually until mid-spring unless the mated pair has to repopulate a lost brood. If that happens, eggs can be laid as late as July and August.
A female will join a male on a perch, and the two will fly together at a low altitude until both suddenly skyrocket into the air to great heights and then fly back to the perch. Another courtship display is performed by the male, who will fly below where the female is perched and walk around tugging at grass and other small plants before flying back to the perch. (Strange behavior compared to other hawk’s mating rituals!) After this display, they will engage in copulation, remaining together for several mating seasons.
White-Tailed Hawk Mating Habits
|Sexual Maturity||Breeding Season||Average broods/season||Average eggs/brood||Incubation||Fledging Age|
|3 years||February – June||One brood||2 – 3 eggs||30 – 32 days||49 – 51 days|
Although the White-tailed Hawk’s habitat is primarily dry, males and females build the nest near a small water source such as a brook or a pond. Elevated an average of 8 feet off the ground in a tree or shrub, it is in an open area with no tall vegetation to obscure the view. They have a nest site much lower than most raptors, especially in the Buteo genus classification, and the highest nest on record for the White-tailed Hawk was 30 feet off the ground.
The nest is not tidy but rather a bulky mass that is oval-shaped and much longer than deep. Measuring 21 inches long and 9 inches wide, the depth is only 5 inches. Maybe the messiness is because both sexes of the hawk are contributing to the nest construction without one being constantly present to oversee the build! Twigs, branches, leaves, and herbs make up the nest, and both male and female White-tailed hawks find nesting material and assemble the structure.
The interior of the nest holds grasses that are softer than the outside and contains aromatic herb scrub to deter parasites. These hawks keep their nest clean and free of waste matter, and their young have been observed at five days old to waddle unsteadily to the edge of the nest and turn around to drop pellets so they land on the ground!
The White-tailed Hawk prefers to reuse the same nest year after year, and one of their nests had been strengthened for use for so many years that it was over three feet long!
Interesting note: White-tailed hawks do chase off other raptors to protect their nest, but often the Great Horned Owls will overpower them and take over the nest.
The female will usually lay 2 or 3 eggs at two-day intervals. Incubation of the eggs happens for about 32 days and is performed primarily by the female, and the chicks are born with down but unable to walk.
The male or the female stay with the eggs and the young at all times, and one of them goes food hunting only when there are no humans nearby. Both parents gather food and feed the hatchlings for seven or eight weeks until they are ready to start independently hunting and flying. Frequently the White-tailed Hawk parents have been seen actively pushing the young out of the nest to fly on their own! Despite this “tough love” philosophy, the young may live in the nest with the parents and be fed by them for another 6 to 8 months until the next breeding season.
Threats to the White-Tailed Hawk
One of the few threats to the White-tailed Hawk is habitat loss due to overgrazing of the land and development. These birds are also affected by nest disturbances, by other raptors, or by humans. Deforestation, while devastating to much wildlife, actually increases the amounts of scrubland available to the White-tailed Hawk. There has been documented habitat loss around coastal TX and Mexico, with habitat gained within the interior of Mexico.
Though conservation agencies have put their population at only 10,000 White-tailed Hawks in the United States, the global population of these birds is roughly 2 million, and they are categorized as low concern for endangerment.
Conservation Status of the White-Tailed Hawk
|IUCN Red List – Least Concern||US Migratory Bird Act – No special status||US Federal List – No special status|
Helpful Hints for Identifying the White-Tailed Hawk
If you can keep a few things in mind when bird-watching and answer a few quick questions, it will make identifying what you see a much easier task! You can even jot these down in a small notebook or put them into your cell phone.
What is the Main Coloring?
- Is it light or dark?
- Are there different colors for the head, body, and wings?
- Do you see any large patches or striping?
- Are the legs yellow?
- Is the tail sticking way out from the body, or is it short?
- Do the wings look long, wide, skinny, or short?
- Is the bird flying from perch to perch, or is it soaring high in the air?
Distinctive Forms (if you are close enough)
- Do the feathers split at the end in finger-like extensions, or is it one continuous shape?
- Does the tail have a fork in it?
- Note the place and the time – are you in the right range for the bird?
- Note the surroundings – if you are on the ocean, but your bird only likes inland mountains, you can rule that out!
Mistaken Identity of the White-Tailed Hawk
It is not common to mistake the White-tailed Hawk, mainly because it is one of the only white hawks in the world and secondly because it is the only North American hawk with one black bar at the end of the pure white tail.
The immature White-tailed hawk that has not morphed into its adult plumage is more easily mistaken because the black band is missing from its tail and the coloring is a speckled brown instead of white.
The short-tailed Hawk is the most similar in coloring and range and has a light morph that looks most similar to the juvenile White-tailed Hawk. It could be confused with the adult White-tailed Hawk if you couldn’t see the black bottom band on the White-tailed Hawks tail.
Which One is the White-Tailed Hawk? How Can You Tell the Difference?
White-tailed Hawk Comparison Chart
Short-tailed Hawk (Light Morph)
|Range||TX, Mexico, Central, and South America||AZ, NM, TX, FL
Mexico, Central, and South America
|Habitat||Open grasslands, coastal prairies||Woodlands and grasslands|
|Size||18 – 22 inches||15 -17 inches|
|Weight||2 – 3 pounds||One pound|
|50 inches||37 inches|
|Overall Coloring||The top is charcoal gray, underside and tail are white||The top is dark brown, underside and tail are white|
|Head Coloring||Medium to light gray||Dark Brown with a white forehead|
|Bill/Beak||Bluish gray||Dark gray|
|Tail||Pure white with a bottom black band||White with light and dark gray banding|
|Markings||Rufous coloring on shoulders, wide black stripe on the end of the tail||Striping on the tail has a light and dark gray coloring, much gray banding on the wings|
|Massively broad wings, hovering activity||Bright white forehead extends down to the bottom of the beak|
Photo Challenge Answer
The bottom picture is the White-tailed Hawk.
Answer: Seeing a White-tailed Hawk can mean different things in different cultures, and hawks have long been associated with messages from the spirit world. Seeing a rare white hawk like the White-tailed Hawk symbolizes purity, good events, and healing.
Answer: If you are lucky enough to hear the rare calls of the White-tailed Hawk, listen for a whiny noise, scratchy and rasping but high-pitched and increasing until it ends with two-syllable song notes. Listen here.
Answer: The White-tailed hawk can fly between 28 and 34 miles per hour, and when it dives, it can reach speeds of 120 mph.
Last but not least, if you have a hawk come to dine in your backyard, let it stay for as long as it needs to digest its meal. Hawks take longer than other birds to fully break down their food, and if you scare it before it can get back to ground zero, it won’t likely come again.
Answer: A grouping of hawks can be called many things, including a knot, stream, tower, spiraling, and a boil.
Answer: The White-tailed Hawk has been blessed with extra long, wide Buteo wings, making it easy for this hawk to use a wind current for its own purposes. Finding a wind stream opposite the direction it’s flying, this hawk positions itself head-on into the current and rides it with minimal wing movement to ensure it stays in the same place. This hovering activity is used more often by the White-tailed Hawk than other hawks and is the primary method of hunting for food.
In short, the White-tailed hawk displays admirable behavior that justifies some of the symbolism associated with it by Native American peoples and Mexican cultures. This is the only hawk with an all-white tail ending in a black band and the only white hawk in the United States. Seeing this unique raptor constitutes a good omen in and of itself. There is a healing tranquility to this quiet bird that prefers to observe a potential predator from aloft, giving it the benefit of the doubt before diving down to eliminate the threat.
I like the patience of this hawk and the non-aggressive manner in which it lives its daily life. It has a big stick in its nest, maybe to remind it of the power it could yield. Just like the stick, however, the ferocious capacity of this bird is unused.
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