Despite its name and its long legs, a Crane Hawk is not a combination of a crane and a hawk but simply a species of hawk.
But while its long legs remind one of a crane, its ability to bend its leg both backwards and forwards to grab its prey is also reminiscent of mechanical cranes used to lift large objects.
Either way, the Crane Hawk’s double-jointedness and long, orange legs are two of its most notable features.
Found across large swathes of Central and South America and even in the Caribbean, below you’ll find everything you need to know about the Crane Hawk – from their breeding and reproduction behaviors, to what they look like and how they hunt.
The Crane Hawk (or Geranospiza caerulescens) is a slender hawk, but thanks to its fluffy plumage it looks more robust.
Crane Hawks measure about 45cm (19 inches), and 350g (0.77lbs), and have small heads. Probably their most notable feature are their long, orange legs that are in contrast to their slate black feathers.
They have two white tail-bands and a curved white band across their outer primaries. They have red irises and a blackish bill.
They’re found in numerous Central and South American countries and in Costa Rica Crane Hawks tend to be paler in color, particularly on their posterior underparts.
Meanwhile, juvenile Crane Hawks also have slate black feathers but white foreheads, superciliaties, and a white throat. Their cheeks are also streaked white while their chest and sides have a brownish hue.
Their belly, thighs, and crissum are paler in color than those of adults and are sometimes white.
Male vs Female
Due to having practically identical plumage, telling male and female hawks apart can be very difficult. Even scientists have difficulty telling them apart! To be absolutely certain of a bird’s gender they need to analyze their feathers for sex-specific DNA markers.
What makes it even harder for laypeople to identify male or female hawks is the fact that, unlike most animals, female hawks are bigger than male hawks.
As well as size differences there are also behavioral differences between male and female hawks that make them easier to tell them apart.
Female hawks are typically 25 to 35 percent larger than male hawks, possessing what is called reverse sexual size dimorphism – which basically means that adult males are smaller than adult females.
While hawks do not gather in flocks, they are monogamous and often mate for life. If you see two hawks together, it is likely that they are an established pair.
If you see a hawk sitting on (or brooding) the nestlings then they are more likely to be a female hawk.
However, sitting on the eggs isn’t behavior just reserved for female hawks, as male hawks also help to incubate the eggs. But it’s only the female hawks that brood their young.
Are they aggressive?
Crane hawks are not typically hostile towards humans, but they do become more aggressive during breeding season and will become more aggressive when they feel as though their nests are threatened.
If you approach any hawk during breeding season, your chances of being attacked by them are increased.
While hawks do have sharp claws and can cut deeply, luckily most hawk attacks result in only minor injuries.
What adaptations do they have?
What makes Crane Hawks unique is the fact that they are double-jointed. They can bend their legs at the tarsal joint both backward and forward.
This special adaptation lets them get into cavities and bromeliad to grab and pull out prey that is particularly difficult to get to.
Crane Hawks are very vocal and theatrical during the breeding season, performing amazing aerial displays. The male will also give the female Crane Hawk food in a display of courtship feeding.
Adult Crane Hawks make a hoarse, screaming ‘kee-eeeee-arr’ sound that they make whilst soaring through the air. This sound lasts for about 2-3 seconds. Meanwhile, during courtship they will make a shrill ‘chwirk’ sound usually several times in a row.
A male Crane Hawk will screech loudly to announce his territory during the mating season. They will also screech repeatedly at a high volume to defend their territory from other hawks and any other invaders.
What do they eat? (Diet)
Crane Hawks enjoy a wide variety of food such as bats, lizards, snakes, large insects, snails, and even other small or nestling birds.
They also catch their prey in a variety of ways. They can catch their prey by dropping to the ground from a nearby perch, or by running or walking along branches, inspecting holes and bromeliads and other vegetation in search of hiding animals to feed on.
If they spot an animal hiding, they will reach for it with their long, flexible legs and toes. They have also been known to hang from branches, almost like possums, balancing themselves by flapping their wings and spreading their tail.
Meanwhile, some researchers have also observed them running along the ground in more open areas whilst trying to catch their prey. In open areas they soar low to the ground in search of food, much like a Harrier.
Researchers have also observed Crane Hawks by fires, hunting small animals fleeing the smoke and flames.
One thing is for sure, when looking for food Crane Hawks are very creative!
Where do they live? (Habitat)
Crane Hawks live at the edge of forests and tropical lowlands, and always close to water.
You can see them in many Caribbean, and Central and South American countries including Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad, Uruguay and Venezuela.
They don’t roam far from their home ranges, and usually only migrate in response to changing water conditions.
What are their nesting habits?
Crane Hawks build their nests high up in trees, either on a network of branches or in clumps of epiphytes. They use twigs and sticks to build a cup-shaped nest lined with green leaves.
Female Crane Hawks lay between 1-2 eggs that are a dull white or bluish color. The eggs will be incubated for about 39 days, and both the male and female will take turns incubating the eggs.
However, the female will be the main one incubating the eggs. The males will go hunting to find enough prey for both himself and the female.
When the nestlings hatch, they are covered in a down that is a creamy color. But even hatchlings have a distinct color on their legs, but this is pink rather than orange. The nestlings will begin to develop over the next month.
They will continue to grow and their feathers will become darker. The young hawks will first take flight at around 32-44 days old. However, they will stay with their parents for several more months until they learn to survive on their own.
How long do they live? (Lifespan)
It is hard to determine a Crane Hawk’s lifespan, but how long any species of hawk can live will depend on environmental factors, and the lifespan differs greatly between hawks in captivity and those in the wild.
For example the average lifespan of a hawk in the wild is less than 12 years, while those in captivity can live for much longer.
This wide gap between life expectancy is not related to biological factors, but rather the environment the hawks are living in.
What predators do they have?
There are no major threats to Crane Hawks, and they are listed as a bird of ‘Least Concern’ due to their huge range (more on that later). The population does seem to be decreasing, but as this isn’t a rapid decline this is no cause for alarm.
What are their feathers like?
The Crane Hawk has mainly slatish-black feathers with a darker tail and two whitish bands and white tips. It has a small head, a long tail, and broad rounded wings with long primary wing feathers.
What does their poop look like?
Like other birds, Crane Hawks produce white pasty excrement. This is uric acid, which is actually equivalent to a mammal’s urine.
But while mammals excrete waste as urea dissolved in urine, birds instead excrete this as uric acid. It has a low solubility in water, which is why it appears as white paste.
Do they migrate?
Crane Hawks do not migrate, and only fly further afield if the water conditions of their current home change.
Due to its enormous range in the American tropics and lack of natural predators, there are no perceived major threats to Crane Hawk populations.
They are classified as a species of ‘Least Concern’ by Birdlife International. However, their population is declining, and this is believed to be due to a loss of habitat.
Other names for the Crane Hawk are the Black Frog Hawk and the Wood Hawk.
While the Crane Hawk is found in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, for a few months between 1987 and 1988 an individual Crane Hawk was seen at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in southern Texas.