Short-tailed Hawk: The Ultimate Guide

While perhaps not as famous as many other hawks which roam the Americas, the short tailed hawk is a very interesting bird of prey and one of the most majestic and uncommon sights among hawks, particularly in central and southern America.

Birds of prey are known for their keen eyesight, excellent hunting capabilities and considerable size, power and speed, making them fascinating creatures to observe, particularly in the wild.

The Short-tailed Hawk is quite a difficult bird to spot and its nondescript markings and size make it difficult to identify, particularly while in flight, however there are certain things to look out for that can help identify this bird and tell it apart from other members of the Accipitridae family.

In this guide we’re going to look at all the information known about the Short-tailed Hawk, including its appearance, behavior, breeding periods, diet, nesting habits lifespan, and a lot of other details to make sure that you know everything you can about this bird and give you all the tools you need to be able to spot it effectively.

There’s quite a lot to learn about this bird, so let’s get started!


The short-tailed hawk is a mid to small sized bird of prey and has similar proportions to the broad winged hawk, however the short-tailed hawk has a slightly wider wingspan. The shape and profile of the bird’s wings are quite broad and don’t sweep back very far and aren’t very pointed when compared to the broad winged hawk.

There are two main types of coloration for this bird, a darker brown coloration and a lighter coloration that is more commonly found in the south American regions of its range.

The darker regions are more common towards the north, particularly in Florida which is one of the only places this bird can be seen in the continental US.

Typically it has a brown head and outer feathers all over its body and wings, and a white under plumage and belly without barring across the chest or wings.

The wingtips tend to be a little darker on the wings and the tail feathers are slightly lighter.

The bird has a relatively small hooked beak which is very similar to most other birds of prey in this family.

At full stretch the winds are fairly broad and there are often 5 distinct wingtips that can be seen at the end of each wing as the bird is soaring or gliding.

Birds that are born light or dark remain this way and don’t change color or morph throughout their life.

Generally it’s thought that around 80 percent of this species comprises the dark variation, with some 80% of the Florida population being the dark variant, and the remainder being the light variant.

It can be difficult to distinguish between these two color types while the birds are young or juvenile.

Adult birds have grey and black flight feathers along the trailing edge of their wings, as well as a brown patch on either side of their neck and a brown head.

Male vs. Female

Generally females are larger than males however there isn’t a huge difference in size, 

Are They Aggressive?

They aren’t a particularly aggressive bird, although of course as a hawk they are able hunters and are quite powerful despite their smaller size, meaning they can defend themselves quite well if they need to.

What Adaptations Do They Have?

The wings of this bird are longer than a lot of hawks at this size and this is the reason for their name, as the longer wings make it appear as if the bird has a small tail, although it isn’t particularly short, in proportion to its body.

Breeding/Reproductive Behavior

males perform aerial displays over the nesting territory performing acrobatics in order to grab the attention of prospective females. 

Calls and Sounds

The main call of the bird is a high pitched and drawn out ‘eeeeek–eeeeek’, however there are sometimes variations for different situations with a longer pause between calls.

What Do They Eat? (Diet)

The main prey for this hawk are other smaller birds, such as songbirds and even smaller hawks such as the sharp-shinned hawk. The birds are capable of hunting a wide array of prey however and will easily prey on snakes, frogs, insects, snails, rodents and lizards which are all readily available in their preferred habitat.

Where Do They Live? (Habitat)

This bird ranges from Florida, all across central America including Mexico and Colombia, and large parts of Brazil too. They prefer tropical or subtropical forest for their main habitat as prey is rich in these environments and the trees provide excellent cover for stealthy hunting, while also making excellent nesting ground.

What Are Their Nesting Habits?

Most of the studies done on this species have been undertaken in Florida, and this may differ slightly for birds living further south in more tropical regions.

In Florida the nests are located in pine or cypress trees at heights of around 25 feet and usually near the top of the tree where the nest is protected by the foliage of the upper canopy.

The nest is quite bulky and solid, and looks like a platform made out of various items such as moss, sticks, branches, twigs with leaves used for lining to make it more comfortable.

The male tends to seek out and retrieve most of the material while the female tends to actually build the nest at the site.

How Long Do They Live? (Lifespan)

Typically hawks will live for around 10 years, but can live longer in captivity depending on how well they are looked after.

What Predators Do They Have?

There are no known predators of this bird, which is common for birds of prey who are able to easily avoid potential predators and are often more likely to be the hunter than the hunted.

It has been known for crows to rob the eggs if left unattended in the nest, and opportunistic hunters may attempt to take a hawk if it is caught unaware, but these are rare and unlikely circumstances not thought to be particularly common.

What Are Their Feathers Like?

Most of the feathers on this bird are brown, particularly on the upper side and the head. The feathers of the underside are often totally white, apart from the underside of the wingtips which show black feathers, particularly on the trailing edge.

THe feathers of the wings are quite strong and long, helping the bird to maintain good gliding and speed for hunting.

What Does Their Poop Look Like?

Hawk slices are mostly brown but can be green or lighter in color depending on what the bird is eating and where their main habitat is.

Do They Migrate?

It really depends on where the birds are resident and different birds may or may not migrate depending on this.

For example, a nesting pair in the south of Florida are more likely to be sedentary due to relatively stable climate conditions year around, while a pair from the north of Florida are more likely to move to the south of the peninsula. If migrations occur they tend to take place in the autumn and early in the spring to allow the birds to take full advantage of the summer months and the warmth and life that comes with them.

It’s very unlikely for birds living in Mexico to stray north, however it has been known for some to enter Texas during the warmer months of the year.

Conservation Status

The conservation status of the Short-tailed hawk is least concern, which means that this bird isn’t in any immediate danger of extinction and although uncommon, this bird isn’t hard to spot in their main habitat and are spread over a wide enough range to avoid most threats to their survival.

As with most tropical birds however, this hawk relies on a habitat which is continually under threat from deforestation and industry, and as such the future of this bird’s survival is by no means assured.

Fun Facts

Although they are named the short tailed hawk, this is actually something of a misnomer, as the tail on this bird only appears to be shorter than other similar sized hawks.

The reality is that their wings are a little longer than hawks of this side, so when perched it gives the bird the appearance of a shorter tail, however their tail is similar in size and proportion to most other hawks in their family.