- 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
Diurnal, Migratory, Soaring, Predator
Diet: Mammals, Lizards, and Birds
My favorite characteristic of the Zone-Tailed Hawk is its cunning stealth with hunting prey. Evolution has been kind to this raptor, giving it a startling similarity to the Turkey Vulture (which doesn’t hunt prey but waits until the food is already dead – scavenger). Because this hawk looks like a vulture, small mammals aren’t alarmed when they see or hear the “vultures” overhead.
Somehow, the Zone-Tailed Hawk knows this and flies with the vultures, suddenly swooping down and scooping up unsuspecting animals. Just the fact that these ground mammals can identify Turkey Vultures and Hawks takes me back a bit, never mind the multi-step thought process of this giant predator. I think it’s amazing, and it makes me wonder what else the Zone-Tailed Hawk knows.
The Zone-Tailed Hawk has been expanding their range from South and Central America into the states, and you will learn in this article what makes this species so formidable.
I will share with you that Zone-Tailed Hawks are one of the few hawks that frequently stalk other birds as prey. This is beginning to seem like one scary hawk to me! Maybe I should call it a passionate hawk instead of scary because this species has spectacularly long and complex courtship flights with the male and female flying together!
Last week I was walking my Golden Retriever on the nature trail by my house, and suddenly out of the side woods, high up toward the treetops, comes this huge raptor with a wingspan I haven’t seen around here in years. I couldn’t believe it. I think it was a Red-Tailed Hawk.
Zone-Tailed Hawk Quick Stats
South and Central America
North America only in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico
|Wooded desert areas, canyons near streams, open country, and arid hills||20 inches||Average 1.4 to 2.3 pounds||50 inches average||The oldest known was 25 years||An intelligent, powerful hunter|
Why Are Zone-Tailed Hawks so Special?
- Zone-Tailed Hawks will fly with Turkey Vultures to blend in so that they can ambush prey that isn’t afraid of vultures
- This hawk species is known for elaborate aerial gymnastics with both the male and female together during mating season
- The female Zone-tailed Hawk will stop incubating her eggs to ferociously chase off hawks and eagles that intrude on her territory
- Zone-Tailed Hawks are the darkest hawks in North America, along with the Common Black Hawk
- These hawks stick around when fires break out to catch the fleeing mammals for their next meal
- Known for their finely-honed hunting strategies and adaptations
- The nests of Zone-tailed Hawks contain prey remains that host various insects; hummingbirds eat these insects from this hawk’s nest!
- When the young are hatched, the male and female do an aerial dance where prey is passed from the male to the female!
Also called the Zone-tailed Buzzard, these hawks are among the least studied North American birds though they display traits representing their intelligence and problem-solving skills that are fascinating to learn about.
|(Animals)||(Chordates)||(Birds)||Hawks, Eagles, Vultures, and Kites||Eagles, Hawks, Kites, Old World Vultures/Hawks, eagles, buzzards, vultures, and relatives||Hawks or buzzards||Zone-Tailed Hawk|
There are no sub-species of the Zone-tailed Hawk.
Range of the Zone-Tailed Hawk
- Purple=Year Round
You can see the Zone-tailed Hawk in southern CA, AZ, NM, TX, and northern Mexico for the summer breeding months only. Winters and year-round residences of this hawk are found in all Central American countries and large swaths of South America from Venezuela and Ecuador to Argentina and Brazil.
There are now regular sightings of the Zone-tailed Hawk in the southwestern states, which is quite nice since about 30 years ago, sightings in the United States were uncommon. I hope this increased habitat gain is a predictable achievement of these hawks for the future, but with climate change drying up water sources and burning forests and grasslands, the Zone-tailed Hawks’ food sources may be forced southward.
In South America, the Zone-tailed Hawk’s range is not continuous and permeating but rather covers only parts of countries in an upside-down U pattern.
Their migration to warmer climates during the colder months is due to a lack of food sources and not because their body needs heat. Many Zone-tailed Hawks will not migrate and remain year-round in the same place. The hawks that live in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico will migrate a short distance to southern Mexico or Northern Central America. If they do migrate, these birds do not have to travel far to find a warmer climate with more prey.
I picture neotropical birds living in dark, sweaty jungles high up in the branches, with a venomous viper under it, but that isn’t so with the Zone-tailed Hawk, even though that is their official habitat description.
These birds are not found at the highest altitudes and prefer to soar and hunt in lowlands and foothills near water. The Zone-Tailed hawk prefers open areas, with a few pine or oak trees on the stream banks, taking advantage of the shade. It often perches at the edge of forests to watch for ground mammals and reptiles that come out into the open.
Usually found at elevations over 3,000 but under 7,500 feet, and in canyons, you can see them soaring beneath the top. Their hunting grounds are mostly grasslands, evergreen thickets, and exposed prairie meadows. Zone-tailed Hawks tend to follow the courses of rivers while soaring and hunting their next meal, preferring willow trees and cottonwoods to make their homes.
In Central America and northeastern South America, the Zone-tailed Hawks include coastal plains in their repertoire of inhabitable spaces.
The Tail Is the Clue
The most widely recognized markings of the Zone-Tailed Hawk are the wide striped bars of grayish-white on the tail, with at least the bottom-most band visible when it’s flying; if you are lucky, you will see two to four white bands. These are truly gorgeous, richly painted on swipes of brilliance against their inky black coloring.
Their legs are so long that those and the flank feathers cover the other bands closer to the tail’s base. I find it funny and helpful that its name came about due to the different tail “zones” or segments lined out.
The hawk’s back, legs, and head are black like slate, with their wings dark for the top third and then becoming a banded putty color. The banding is finely striped on the underside of their wings for the bottom half. This is a beautifully orchestrated pattern for such a dark hawk, and the definition of design and contrasting colors makes this hawk extremely photogenic and fun to paint!
This flight feather banding creates a two-tone effect similar to the Turkey Vulture’s, making people and animals mistake it for the other bird.
The edges of their wings are dipped slightly in white, with orange/yellow beaks and feet, which is another sign of what you are looking at, especially when next to a Turkey Vulture. (I will give you some tips to identify this bird among a group of Turkey Vultures!)
Their figure is slender compared to other raptors, and the Zone-tailed Hawk’s long tail can reach up to 9 inches, elongating the body even more! The wingspan can be upwards of 55 inches, which is almost five feet tall, so if you see this hawk, you may mistake it for an eagle or the “Mothman!”
Female Zone-tailed Hawk
There are no consistent marked differences between the female and male coloring; however, the female is comparatively much heavier than the male, with an average weight being two pounds.
Juvenile Zone-tailed Hawk
The most striking difference between a juvenile and adult Zone-tailed Hawk is the juvenile’s finely barred, mostly light-colored tail. Looking more closely, you will see the tips of the juvenile’s tail and wing feathers are edged in dark gray-black rather than the white tips of the adult hawk. The juvenile will also have light spotting on the underside, with the adult’s underside being soot black. There are only two plumages for the Zone-tailed Hawk: the juvenile and adult.
The noise of the Zone-tailed Hawk is not pleasant to my ear, and I wish I heard a classical flute solo coming out of its mouth instead of the high-pitch whistle scream and tinny “kreaaaaaaac” that pierces the air. Listen to them below:
Diet and Feeding
The Zone-tailed Hawk has a diet of such varying delicacies that even I would be hard-pressed to surpass. Favorite menu items include Screech Owls, Quail, Common Hawks, Woodpeckers, and Kingbirds, with a close second being lizards such as the Collared and Spiny lizards, which reach 14 inches in length! Snakes, rats, bats, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, and frogs round out these nutritious meals.
Diet percentages of each are roughly 40% mammals, 30% reptiles, and 30% birds.
Preying on such a wide array of creatures demands that the Zone-tailed Hawk have effective methods for hunting each, and evolution again has provided! The chief technique is soaring and circling in a low, lazy pattern and posturing similar to the Turkey Vulture (wings upswept, rocking side to side).
The Zone-tailed Hawk can soar alone for hours this way, and prey, including ground mammals, mistake the hawk’s mimicking for a friendly flyer. This leaves the hawk free to fly lower and lower until they can screen themselves behind a cover to get closer. Once they are close enough, they dive steeply at speeds close to 100 mph for the final move on the unsuspecting entree. Now, that’s what I call manipulative!
Sometimes the Zone-tailed Hawk resorts to chasing birds that are flying or swooping birds off their perches. Seldom do the raptors perch and wait for prey, as they are aggressive stalkers.
Courtship and Mating
Zone-Tailed Hawk Mating Habits
|Sexual Maturity||Breeding Season||Average broods/season||Average eggs/brood||Incubation||Fledging Age|
|Unknown||March to July (location dependent)||1||2||30-35 days||43-50 days (but stay with parents for the season)|
Known for their breathtaking rolls, loops, and dives during aerial aerobics, Zone-tailed Hawks profusely display their agility and choreography skills to their partner during courtship and through the end of mating season. It is a privilege to watch how accurately these hawks must maneuver around each other to achieve the patterned dances that they do for each other.
Zone-tail Hawks will ascend together, and while ascending, they will frequently do figure-eights around each other. If one doesn’t finish a loop, the other finishes it for them! I see quite a few similarities between how their brains work and the intelligent dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park.”
Once these passionate hawks reach over 1000 feet, they will suddenly dive and then swing straight up to circle their partner, with both the male and female calling out to each other and extending their feet! That’s more effort than my experience with dating!
Barrel rolls and entwining talons (holding hands, I think!) are part of this magnificent show, with the Zone-tailed Hawk pair sometimes plunging, talons locked, more than 1500 feet before letting go and swooping up just before the ground! This mating dance can last for up to an hour each time. It’s like a show I saw in Las Vegas!
Immediately after the dance, the male and female may mate, or the dance could have been initiated due to the presence of another male in the territory. Once these birds mate, they usually stay together for years.
There hasn’t been as much research on the Zone-tailed Hawk as other hawks, but to give you an idea of how precise their flying must be, here’s a video of a Red-tailed Hawk’s courtship flight where the male and female lock talons.
The nesting activity is shared by both the male and female Zone-tailed Hawks, gathering pine needles, moss, bark, and sticks, and both building a sturdy platform nest in the crook of a tree.
More than 35 feet off the ground and sometimes 100+ feet, the Zone-tailed Hawk’s nest is built in a tall cottonwood or pine tree, usually near a water source. If you look for the tallest tree or one more isolated than the rest, those are often the preferred location for the hawk to make their home. Made of large limbs, branches, and sticks, the bulky nest is lined with smaller twigs and green leaves and is typical for a hawk in the Buteo Genus. Occasionally the nest will be constructed on a cliff ledge.
The nest is a bowl shape, with an average size of 24 inches across and 20 inches high, with an interior diameter of 9 inches and 6 inches deep.
The Zone-tailed Hawk often returns to the nest site each year, repairing and strengthening it for the next brood.
I want to share this incredulous information about Zone-tailed Hawks – you will love it. Once the eggs hatch, the male and female perform an aerial dance where the male passes live prey to the female! The female hawk then takes the prey back to the nest, kills it, dismembers it, and feeds it to the hatchlings. Can you believe that?
Though the female Zone-tailed Hawk will have up to 3 eggs, more than one chick will rarely survive. Common practice is for the first hatched to kill and eat the next hatched to increase their chances of survival. The parents do not interfere in this inherent action.
When first laid, the eggs are whitish blue, sometimes with spots on them, and the female will incubate them for about 35 days. The male and female Zone-tailed hawks will bring back prey to the nest during incubation. When the eggs hatch, the helpless young are born with only down, and the female stays with them for at least two weeks while the male brings back all the food. The female is always the one who feeds the young.
Within 50 days, the young can fly out of the nest and perch on another tree but usually stay with the parents until the end of the breeding season, which could be another month or two.
Researchers have seen the young chicks practicing their hunting skills when they are about 6 weeks old, attacking sticks and grabbing moss with their talons. When they are a few weeks older, they swoop down when in flight to capture sticks on the ground and carry them away.
Threats to the Zone-Tailed Hawk
Climate change brings rising temperatures, increased forest and grass fires, drought, and other conditions that destroy wildlife habitats and eliminate food sources for raptors. This will push the Zone-tailed Hawk to more random range clusters and is the primary threat to its survival.
In Texas, this habitat destruction is more prominent, as well as the threat from farmers who view the Zone-tailed hawk as more common “chicken hawks” that take their livestock. This hawk species is listed by the state of TX to be endangered.
Conservation Status of the Zone-Tailed Hawk
|IUCN Red List – Least Concern||US Migratory Bird Act – No special status||US Federal List – No special status|
Since the Zone-tailed Hawk’s range has been increasing in the southwestern U.S., and their population historically remains at or above two million for all combined ranges, there are thought to be no major concerns that threaten the survival of this species. However, protecting their habitat from the effects of global warming may be prudent in the U.S. since only 2,000 Zone-tailed Hawks migrate to breed in America.
The IUCN lists their population as stable and rates them as “Least Concern.” There are no specific protections for the Zone-tailed Hawk, except in Texas, which has had this hawk on its threatened species list for several years.
Helpful Hints for Identifying the Zone-Tailed Hawk
Having some questions floating around in your head will help you to remember specifics about the bird you are seeing and will be crucial to comparing it with other species once you get the chance. Some things that pop up in my head whenever I see something flying by are listed below!
- What color is the head?
- Is there any striping and banding on the wings?
- What color are the underparts?
- Is the tail one color or pattern?
- What color are the beak and legs?
- How long or wide is the tail?
- How large is the wingspan?
- What type or pattern of flying is used?
- Are the wings separated at the ends like fingertips?
- Is the tail forked?
- Are the range and the time of year right for this species?
- What habitat type am I in?
Mistaken Identity of the Zone-Tailed Hawk
Turkey Vultures and Zone-tailed Hawks
Zone-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures resemble each other, and the hawk imitates the movements and flight patterns of the vultures to capture prey. They have even been known to roost together! The Turkey Vulture is a scavenger and doesn’t hunt prey; it waits until the food is dead and then eats it. Because of this, ground animals have learned not to fear Turkey Vultures.
The Zone-tailed Hawk is a predator and does hunt its prey to capture, kill and eat, and therefore is seen as a threat by animals, and the similar markings and colorings for both birds lead to many missed sightings of the hawk by birders, especially when the hawk is flying with the vultures.
Which One Is the Zone-Tailed Hawk? How Can You Tell the Difference?
Some surefire ways to distinguish the hawk from vultures are the legs, feet, and beak. The Zone-tailed Hawk has brightly colored solid orange/yellow feet, legs, and beaks, while the Turkey Vulture has white legs, feet, and beaks. The Turkey Vulture also has a bright red head, while the Zone-tailed Hawk’s head is dark charcoal.
Another spoiler for identifying Zone-tailed Hawks is the wide putty-white stripes, or bands, across their tails. When flying, you can clearly see one, but they have up to four bands on their tail. The Turkey Vulture has a medium gray tail with no banding.
The flight wings are distinctly striped with soft gray banding that will look different than the darker two-tone colored wings of the Turkey Vulture if you are close enough.
Photo Challenge Answer
If you guessed the Zone-tailed Hawk was on the left, you are right!
Zone-tailed Hawk Comparison Chart
|Range||Southwestern U.S., Mexico, Central America, and limited patches of South America||All states in the U.S., all of Central and South America|
|Habitat||Partially open or open country near mountains and cliffs with a source of water||Hilly areas near highways and sides of roads in open country, landfills, and farms|
|Size||20 inches long/1.5 to 2.3 pounds||30 inches long/3-5 pounds|
|Wingspan||52-inch average||72-inch average|
|Overall||Charcoal black||Dark brown, gray, scaly look to the top of wings|
|Head||Charcoal||Featherless bright red|
|Bill/Beak||Solid bright orange-yellow||The lower beak is beige/white|
|Legs/Feet||Solid bright orange-yellow||Beige/white|
|Tail||Charcoal with 2 to 5 wide white stripes across it||Medium gray solid|
|Markings||Flight wings are lightly banded with soft grey on the bottom half||The wings are dark gray/brown, and the bottom half is medium gray (two-tone)|
Answer: Year-round residences for the Zone-Tail Hawk are found in southern Mexico and Central America and in an upside-down U shape from Venezuela and Colombia to northern Argentina and Brazil in South America. Breeding areas for the hawk can be found in the southwestern states of the U.S. and in northern Mexico.
Answer: Most of the Zone-tailed Hawk’s diet is made up of smaller birds and owls, and then reptiles like lizards and snakes, and about 15-20% is made up of small ground mammals like voles, squirrels, rabbits, and rats. In the tropical areas, their diet will expand to include other foods not offered in their breeding range.
Answer: Since hawks are predators that hunt small prey like birds, the best way to attract them is to attract all sorts of birds! The more birds you have in your yard and the larger the water source, the more likely you will have hawks coming to visit. You will have covered all four of their needs if you provide them with shelter and nesting sites (thickets of shrubs, wooded areas). Food, water, shelter, and nesting.
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: The Zone-tailed Hawk uses its similarity to the vulture to gain an advantage over prey that would normally run once it detected a nearby hawk. Since vultures don’t hunt prey and only eat already dead animals, they pose no threat to smaller birds and ground mammals. If the Zone-tailed hawk can make its prey think it is a vulture, they won’t try to escape, and the hawk has an easy time capturing his meals!
Answer: The short answer is to conserve energy. The explained answer is that when hawks circle, they are riding the waves of thermal air currents that allow them to soar without using energy to stay in the air. These natural columns of wind are necessary for birds to use as rest from the exertions of hunting. Hawks use dive-bombing to rapidly descend, capture, and kill their prey without hitting the ground.
It takes enormous energy for them to complete this and not get hurt. Hawks don’t want to use that huge amount of energy only to find that their prey is putting up a big fight or running faster than they can catch them. Circling in the air, riding the currents with minimal energy allows hawks to easily watch their prey from above, timing their attack, so they have ample distance and time to successfully catch their meal!
I hope this has given you a better understanding of the Zone-tailed Hawk and all the reasons that make it unique among Buteos. Raptors are my bird of choice to watch because of their crafty and furtive actions, which gives me pause to think of how their brains have evolved over millions of years, and Zone-tailed hawks are no exception.
They are one of my favorites because they are authentic in their pursuits. The energetic aerial gymnastics they share with their monogamous partner is very dramatic and takes two willing partners to be successful. The Zone-tailed Hawk’s surreptitious blending with vultures to disarm prey and the sheer power it takes to descend, kill and dismember large reptiles.
Ferociously defending the nest, incubating the eggs while your partner eats, and celebrating the hatching of your young with a prey passing flight. These are all symbols of being wholly invested in life, and sometimes I need to be reminded that what’s “for the birds” is also for me.
You may also like
- Crowned Eagle Guide (Stephanoaetus coronatus) Africa’s most powerful eagle
- Common Black Hawk Guide (Buteogallus anthracinus)
- The Best Hummingbird Feeders on Amazon in Every Style
- Boreal Owl Guide (Aegolius funereus)