Galapagos Hawk: The Ultimate Guide

Buteo galapagoensis, or as it’s more commonly known the Galapagos hawk, is a large bird of prey that is found in most of the Galapagos Islands. 


While it is similar in appearance to a number of other American species of hawk, namely the red-tailed hawk and the Swainson’s hawk.

The Galapagos hawk is physically larger than the other species it resembles and is the second-largest member of the hawk (Buteo) family in the world, even though, unusually for a bird but completely normal for the Galapagos Islands, its size varies according to which island it calls home. 

The smallest members of the species are found on Marchena Island, while intermediate-sized raptors are found on Santiago Island, and the largest Galapagos hawks are native to Espanola Island.

The species varies in size, measuring between forty-five to fifty-eight centimeters, or one and a half feet from tail to beak, and weight, being anywhere from one and a half pounds to three pounds (five hundred grams to one and a half kilo’s) and has a wingspan between one and one and a half meters, or six to seven and a half feet.

Adult birds tend to be dark brown or black, with their heads (or crowns) being slightly darker in color than their backs and their tails are usually streaked with silvery grey stripes.

Juvenile birds are a lighter shade of brown than fully mature eagles, but share the same light brown eyes and bluish-grey to black beaks as their adult counterparts.

All Galapagos hawks, regardless of their island of origin, have the same wide wings and tails which have adapted to help them hunt their prey. 

Male vs. Female

The female of the species is always much larger than the male, but barring the difference in size, both male and female Galapagos hawks are pretty much the same in appearance and color. 

Are They Aggressive?

A natural apex predator, the Galapagos hawk is noted for being an incredibly approachable bird and has been known to scrounge for food around human settlements.

They’re not afraid of man, or any other animal and only display any sign of aggression while hunting. 

What Adaptations Do They Have? 

The Galapagos hawk, as well as having the same strong curved beak and long talons as other raptors, has adopted an unusual method of hunting.

The hawks hunt in pairs and threes, who search for their prey at a height of one hundred to six hundred feet (thirty to one hundred eighty-two meters). When one of the birds in the “team” spots a target, it signals to the other hawks, and they descend as one, to feed.

However, Galapagos hawks have a strict hierarchy and the dominant bird in the pair or trio of hunters will eat first, while the other birds wait until the alphas appetite is fully satiated before they feed. 

Breeding / Reproductive Behaviour

Because of the climate of the Galapagos Islands, there are no set mating seasons for the hawk, and they mate throughout the year.

Mating is initiated by the male and is an incredibly noisy process, as the male screeches and screams while attempting to court a female by diving and swooping toward her.

If the female is interested, she will descend toward the ground and allow the male to follow her. 

After mating, the female will lay between one and three eggs, but only one chick will be raised by the mating pair. Offspring tend to leave the nest seven to eight weeks after hatching, but don’t reach sexual maturity until they are three years old. 

Their Calls / Sounds

The Galapagos hawk’s call is usually described as a short, repeated screech that alternates between “keer” and “keeu”.

Incredibly vocal and noisy during mating, the hawks call, when it isn’t searching for a prospective mate or signaling other birds often softens to a much quieter, repeated “klip, kilp”. 

What Do They Eat (Diet)

The hawk’s diet, while entirely carnivorous, is varied and the raptor eats everything from large insects to small lava lizards, rodents, and snakes.

It has also been known to prey upon Galapagos sea lion pups and tortoise and turtle young, and to steal eggs and feed on the chicks of swallow-tailed gulls.

Not noted for being a particularly fussy hunter, the hawk tends to view moist smaller mammals and reptiles as prey and doesn’t discriminate between the species that it feeds upon. 

Where Do They Live (Habitat)

Galapagos Hawk

Found throughout the South American islands that it is named after, the Galapagos hawk has evolved to suit its environment and was one of the many birds that Charles Darwin studied while researching the theory of evolution. 

What Are Their Nesting Habits?

The hawks build their nests on lava edges, in trees, and on the ground, and tend to be territorial toward them, and often use the same nests to mate throughout their lives.

As they habitually use the same nests, they keep adding material to them and it isn’t unusual for older nests to reach diameters of five feet (one point six meters) or more, 

The only thing that ever forces a Galapagos hawk to abandon its nest is if it is interfered with by humanity. Even though the bird has no natural fear of man, if a nest is disturbed by human intervention, the hawk will abandon it. 

How Long They Live (Lifespan)?

That’s a question that science still hasn’t been able to definitively answer, although the assumption is that their lifespan resembles that of their cousin, the red-tailed hawk.

Based on that conclusion, then the average lifespan of the Galapagos hawk is around twenty-five years. 

What Predators Do They Have?

The Galapagos hawk is an apex predator, and within its natural habitat and the island base that it calls home, the hawk resides at the top of the food chain.

It has no natural predator, which partially explains its fearless nature and why the bird has never been afraid of man, who is the most terrifying predator on Earth.  

What Do Their Feathers Look Like?

Their wing feathers are paler than those that cover the rest of their body, and on the inner webs are often white. The primary feathers are brown and black, and the feathers that adorn their flanks and abdomens have ruffled edges. 

The feathers, when the hawk reaches full maturity, on the undersides of their wings are black but are a mottled and striped brown in juveniles. 

What Does Their Poop Look Like?

A voracious raptor, the Galapagos hawk hunts and eats a lot, so it tends to poop a lot. And its poop closely resembles that of all birds of prey.

It’s mostly “whitewash”, that is a white liquid, that’s interspersed with darker lumps of fecal matter and the occasional lump of undigested flesh from whatever creature they last ate. 

Do They Migrate?

The Galapagos hawk does not migrate. A sedentary raptor, they are only found on the Galapagos islands and never leave the area of South America that they call home. 

Conservation Status

Although it has no natural predators, the Galapagos hawk is listed as vulnerable, mainly due to the loss of habitat following the incursion of man.

Even though the exact number of Galapagos hawks is unknown, there are thought to be no more than one hundred and fifty breeding pairs in the islands that they call home. 

Fun Facts 

Even though the hawk is named after the place that it calls home, DNA evidence suggests that the hawk isn’t actually native to the Galapagos Islands and only arrived there around three hundred thousand years ago.

Although we can predict when they first arrived on the Galapagos Islands, give or take a thousand years or two, we still don’t know where in the world the hawks originally called home. 

While the male of the species tends to be monogamous, the female hawk can mate with up to seven different partners during a single mating season. 

Despite the fact that the female lays and incubates up to three eggs at a time, a mating pair of Galapagos hawks will only ever raise one chick. What happens to the other young that hatch? You don’t want to know.

Trust us, you really, really don’t. 

The Galapagos hawk has never been afraid of man, and while they undoubtedly came into contact with humans before the infamous voyage of The Beagle it was Charles Darwin who first recorded, in eighteen forty-five, the strange behavior of the hawk toward man when he wrote “A gun here is almost superfluous, as with a muzzle I pushed a hawk out of the branch of a tree”

Unusually, for any species of bird, the size of a hawk varies according to which island in the Galapagos the bird calls home. It was this oddity that helped Darwin to formulate the idea of natural selection, which in turn led him to come up with his theory of evolution. 

The Galapagos hawk never hunts alone, and will always hunt in packs of two or three. Every member of the “hunting pack” acts as a spotter, and the first bird who finds a potential meal will signal the others to follow it as they move in for the kill. 

They have incredibly sharp eyesight, and if it wasn’t for their fearless nature, we’d know very little about the bird as they have always been able to spot us long before we can see them.