The White-Tailed Hawk, also known in scientific circles as Geranoaetus albicaudatus, is a grassland, prairie, and desert-dwelling hawk species native to several areas within the United States and South America.
But there’s so much more to the white-tailed hawk than this basic bio! In fact, there’s so much to learn about Geranoaetus albicaudatus that we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to help you identify and understand this fascinating hawk species.
With some hawk species, it can be tricky to distinguish one from the other. However, the White-Tailed Hawk is quite easy to identify, especially in adulthood, because of its contrasting colors.
The head, back, and most of the wings of the White-Tailed Hawk are all gray with patches of red on the upper wings where they join to the body (the scapulars).
On the underside of their bodies, White-Tailed Hawks are completely white. Their tails, as their common name suggests, are also white, with a black stripe along the tips of the feathers.
However, it should be noted that juvenile White-Tailed Hawks look different from adults. Only their breasts are white as opposed to their entire underside, which is mostly dark and speckled.
On top, they are dark brown without the red patches seen in adults.
When fully grown, the White-Tailed Hawk has quite a stocky build. Its tail is short, its wings are broad, and it makes a wide V shape with its wings when in flight.
Male vs. Female
As has been observed in the vast majority of hawk species, the White-Tailed Hawk exhibits a trait known as reverse sexual dimorphism.
This means that adult females of the species are larger than males. In fact, the female can be up to 35% larger than her mate.
On average, White-Tailed Hawks can grow between 17 and 24 inches in size (equivalent to between 44 and 60 cm). Their average weight falls between 1.94 and 2.73 lbs, or 880 to 1,240 grams.
Are They Aggressive?
The White-Tailed Hawk is not known to be an aggressive species in its interactions with humans. Like most hawks, it will avoid interacting with humans where possible. The only exception would be if its nest were to be threatened.
What Adaptations Do They Have?
White-Tailed Hawks have similar adaptations to many hawk species in the wild.
Their beaks are distinctly hooked, which makes tearing into the flesh of smaller prey easier. They also have impressive talons for gripping onto branches and other perching areas, as well as snatching up prey from the ground.
The White-Tailed Hawk is a monogamous hawk species, which means that these hawks pair for multiple nesting seasons.
The beginning of the breeding season for the White-Tailed Hawk starts with a courting process, which involves embarking on a flight together. This flight has a specific path, starting out low and gradually rising.
At various points during the flight, males have been observed to swoop down and pull on vegetation growing from the ground, which experts believe is probably a display for the benefit of the female.
After the flight, mating takes place, and the male and female will nest together. 2 eggs are typically laid at a time, although 3 may be laid in rare circumstances.
The call of the White-Tailed Hawk is high-pitched and could be described as whining at the beginning of the sound. However, after the initial whine, the call develops into pairs of notes, the first higher than the second.
Juvenile calls are slightly different in that they consist of one high-pitched note.
What Do They Eat? (Diet)
The White-Tailed Hawk’s diet is very varied despite being completely carnivorous.
Prey of the White-Tailed Hawk includes smaller birds, mice, rats, rabbits, gophers, frogs, lizards, and snakes. In certain areas, crabs and crayfish may also make suitable prey.
Basically, most smaller animals that can be snatched quickly from the ground and that won’t pose a threat of poisoning are fair game for the White-Tailed Hawks.
Where more substantial prey on the ground is scarce, White-Tailed hawks may content themselves with catching airborne insects in mid-air.
The feeding behavior of White-Tailed Hawks is interesting because these hawks will often gravitate towards fires in search of food.
This might seem counterintuitive, but there’s a very good reason behind it! Where there is fire, there are usually animals (including insects) trying to escape it.
This presents the perfect opportunity for the hawk to swoop in and catch distracted prey.
Where Do They Live? (Habitat)
White-Tailed Hawks can be found in grasslands, prairies, and savannahs. The White-Tailed Hawk population is especially dense in Texas, but it is also present in Mexico and certain other areas of South and Central America.
Researchers have also confirmed the presence of White-Tailed Hawks in some areas of the Caribbean, although populations are not as dense here.
What Are Their Nesting Habits?
The White-Tailed Hawk will usually nest in treetops, although the trees chosen for nesting are often relatively low. Shrubs are also sometimes used as nesting sites.
Both the male and female of this hawk species work together to construct the nest, which will normally consist of a combination of twigs and vegetation. If the nest is built strongly enough, it can be used several times over.
In most cases, nesting will occur between the late Winter months and the Spring season. The eggs will need to be incubated for between 29 and 32 days.
How Long Do They Live? (Lifespan)
There is no concrete information available as to the average lifespan of the White-Tailed Hawk, although a female White-Tailed Hawk aged 10 years and 7 months has been located in Texas.
However, it is thought that this hawk was the oldest of the species ever observed.
Researchers have measured some components of the White-Tailed Hawk’s life cycle, however. For example, we know that eggs take between 29 and 32 days to hatch, and after that point, hatchlings will be unable to fly before the 46 to 55-day mark.
Even after hatchlings of this hawk species can fly, parents continue to feed them for 7 months at least.
What Predators Do They Have?
One of the main predatory threats to the White-Tailed Hawk is the Great Horned Owl, which can not only prey on White-Tailed Hawks but also displace them from their nests.
Eagles can also prey on these hawks, and sometimes, attempts by the White-Tailed Hawk to prey on snakes can backfire.
What Are Their Feathers Like?
The White-Tailed Hawk’s feathers are the reason for this species’ common name. The feathers of the White-Tailed Hawk are clearly marked in blocks of color by adulthood, with white tail feathers ending in a solid black band.
Feathers of this species will become thicker and stronger when they reach adulthood, but as hatchlings, feathers are very fine and downy.
What Does Their Poop Look Like?
White-Tailed Hawks produce the same kind of excrement as other hawk species.
Although the actual fecal excrement (if healthy) is brown in color, if you find White-Tailed Hawk waste on your travels, it’s likely to look white and have a pasty, as opposed to firm, consistency.
This is because hawks expel uric acid (the bird equivalent to human urine) at the same time as fecal waste through the same orifice.
Do They Migrate?
White-Tailed Hawks do not migrate in the usual sense of the word. That is to say, they don’t travel significant distances in the same way that other bird species do.
However, White-Tailed Hawks may move to slightly warmer areas for the winter months. For instance, while these hawks do not typically nest on Padre Island (Texas) today, they can be observed traveling there for the Winter.
The conservation status of the White-Tailed Hawk is currently listed as Least Concern. This means that, on the risk spectrum for endangerment and extinction, the White-Tailed Hawk is currently not in any danger.
However, it has been noted that White-Tailed Hawk populations are decreasing in certain areas where they have previously been observed in greater numbers.
One example of such an area is Mexico. However, experts believe that this decline is in connection to overgrazing, which has simply made the area less habitable.
With that being said, there are some potential threats to the White-Tailed Hawk that could see a decline in species numbers if action is not taken.
For example, deforestation in this hawk’s habitat, due, in part, to manmade development poses a threat to the species’ ability to thrive. Climate change is also a significant contributor to a potential future threat to the White-Tailed Hawk.
Although juvenile White-Tailed Hawks are, of course, smaller than the adults of the species, their tails are actually 15% longer on average. This means that the adults and juveniles are proportionally very different to look at.
The White-Tailed Hawk’s scientific name, Geranoaetus albicaudatus, derives etymologically from the words ‘crane,’ ‘eagle,’ ‘white’, and ‘tail’, which is in keeping with the name by which it is commonly known.