How The Peregrine Fund is helping
From 1988 to 1996, The Peregrine Fund was dedicated to studying Neotropical birds of prey in the Peten region of Guatemala in an ambitious undertaking called the Maya Project. All the information gathered on diet, nesting, threats and behavior helped contribute to the scientific world's knowledge of many of these species, including the Black Hawk-eagle. This is important because the more we know about a species, the better we are able to help conserve it. The Peregrine Fund published the results of the Maya Project in a book called "Neotropical Birds of Prey, Biology and Ecology of a Forest Raptor Community."
Where They Live
Similar to the Ornate Hawk-eagle, the Black Hawk-eagle is a Neotropical bird of prey, found from southern Mexico to eastern Peru, through Brazil and northern Argentina. This beautiful eagle spends its time in lowlands and foothills usually below 2,000 m.a.s.l. It can be found in humid and moist forests, as well as gallery forest – a forest that forms a corridor running along a stream or other water source. It also inhabits disturbed forest, forest edges, late second-growth, and semi-open areas. If you find yourself in Black Hawk-eagle habitat, one of the best ways to see one is to look up and to listen! This agile bird spends a lot of time soaring over the forest canopy or even in open areas, vocalizing loudly.
What they do
The Black Hawk-eagle is a gorgeous Neotropical bird of prey. As you may have guessed by its name, the Black Hawk-eagle appears shiny, charcoal-black when perched. However, don't let its name fool you, as it is actually quite a colorful bird. It has yellow feet, legs covered in black and white feathers, a yellow cere and piercing yellow eyes. When in flight, this eagle is even more beautiful as the striking, barred black and white pattern on its underwings and the grey tail become visible. This raptor also has a small black crest with white edges.
Like many neotropical raptor species, including the Harpy Eagle, the Black Hawk-eagle is equipped with a facial disk. But what exactly is a facial disk and why does a Black Hawk-eagle have one? Imagine for a moment what it must be like beneath the canopy of a rainforest. To do so, think about what it is like underneath a tree on a sunny day. Does a lot of light penetrate or does the tree create a shady spot? Now imagine being beneath the shade of hundreds of trees! Even in the daytime, little sunlight penetrates the thick forest and it is a lot darker there than it would be in the open. So, many raptors in these forests need to use their hearing, as well as their eyesight, to help them pinpoint prey.
The facial disk - a trait it shares with owls – helps it do this. The facial disk is composed of feathers that form a circle around the bird’s face. The disk can be lifted or lowered at will. When the feathers of the facial disk are raised, they help direct sounds to the birds’ ears, which are located on the sides of its head. To find out how this works, cup your hands behind your ears and listen. You might notice that whatever you are listening to seems louder.
Black Hawk-eagles, like all top predators, play a very important role in their environment. Top predators are those animals that hunt other animals for food but no animals hunt them on a regular basis. For most top predators, the only threat they face is humans. Top predators, such as the Black Hawk-eagle, play an important role in nature by helping to control populations of prey animals and maintain a balance in the ecosystems where they live.
They are also known as an umbrella species. Just as several people can stand under a large umbrella and be protected from the rain, so too can many species of wildlife be protected by conserving one species like the Black Hawk-eagle. To protect the eagles, we must protect the animals they need for food, the plants and animals those animals feed on, and the trees that Black Hawk-eagles nest in, which helps protect the other animals that use these trees for food, shelter, and space. Conserving Black Hawk-eagles and their habitat automatically provides protection for all the other plants and animals that live there too.
Why they need our help
The Black Hawk-eagle is considered a common species throughout its range. While many researchers believe that this species is generally more tolerant of human activities and disturbances to its habitat, this doesn't mean that Black Hawk-eagle populations aren't facing some problems. In fact, the species appears to be in decline - meaning its numbers are going down and there are fewer and fewer Black Hawk-eagles each year. Though no one knows for sure exactly why this is so, it is most likely due to habitat loss and from being hunted by people.
What they eat
The Black Hawk-eagle is a very powerful and skilled hunter. This prowess allows it to feed on a large number of different prey animals. While its preferred diet is mainly mammals including marmosets, squirrels, squirrel monkeys, opossums, and bats, it will also hunt large birds including chachalacas, macaws, toucans, and guans. Researchers even documented it feeding on nestlings of a pair of Vermillion-crowned Flycatchers (Myiozetetes similis) - quite a small bird in comparison!
Its eclectic menu doesn’t stop there. It will also feast on large lizards, such as iguanas, and snakes.
When this medium-sized eagle is on the hunt, it usually moves from tree to tree above or below the forest canopy, listening or looking for prey. Once it spots something tasty to eat, it pursues it rapidly through the air or snatches it from the ground in a surprise attack.
Nest, eggs, and young
The Black Hawk-eagle is an impressive bird and so it stands to reason that it would build an impressive nest! Black Hawk-eagles build big nests in the shape of a platform using large sticks and twigs, which they place on a thick, sturdy branch close to the main trunk of a very large tree.
When the time is right, the female will lay one egg, which is usually plain white with few distinguishing marks. The female Black Hawk-eagle is usually responsible for doing all or most of the incubation and direct caring for the young. But don’t worry, the male is busy at work too! His job is to bring the female and his offspring all the food they need to survive. When he delivers food to the nest, the female will take it from him, and delicately feed her young. She does this by tearing off bits of meat and passing it to her chick, beak to beak.
Black Hawk-eagle and the World Center for Birds of Prey
The World Center for Birds of Prey offers fun ways to learn about raptors. Interactive activities, tours, interesting videos and a children's room with activities from coloring sheets and quizzes to costumes and a touch table are available for the curious mind. We also have several different birds of prey on display year-round, including several eagle species! Though we don't have any resident Black Hawk-eagles at the World Center for Birds of Prey, if you visit you will be rewarded with an opportunity to meet Fancy, our resident Ornate Hawk-eagle, who is a close cousin of the Black Hawk-eagle. At the visitor center, you will see this amazingly colorful bird of prey up close in our outdoor aviary. Come learn about this unique species and all its rainforest neighbors, including the Black Hawk-eagle.
Barnett, A.A., Andrade, E.S., Ferreira, M.C., Soares, J.B.G., da Silva, V.F. and de Oliveira, T.G., 2015. Primate predation by black hawk-eagle (Spizaetus tyrannus) in Brazilian Amazonia. Journal of Raptor Research, 49(1), pp.105-108.
BirdLife International 2016. Spizaetus tyrannus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22696193A95222363. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22696193A95222363.en. Downloaded on 26 July 2019.
Black Hawk-Eagles in Panama. https://www.whitehawkbirding.com/black-hawk-eagles-in-panama/
Canuto, M., 2008. Observations of two hawk-eagle species in a humid lowland tropical forest reserve in central Panama. Journal of Raptor Research, 42(4), pp.287-293.
Global Raptor Information Network. 2019. Species account: Black Hawk-eagle Spizaetus tyrannus. Downloaded from http://www.globalraptors.org on 26 Jul. 2019
Quintero, I. and A. Jácome (2011). Black Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus tyrannus), version 1.0. In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/nb.blheag1.01
Salvador-Jr, L., Carvalho, C., Canuto, M. and Zorzin, G., 2011. Aves, Accipitridae, Spizaetus tyrannus (Wied, 1820): new records in the Quadrilátero Ferrífero region, Minas Gerais, Brazil. Check List, 7, p.32.