Zone-tailed Hawk

Buteo albonotatus
Population status:
Least Concern
Body length:
46 to 56 cm (18 to 22 in)
117–140 cm (46–55 in)
565–1,080 g (1.246–2.381 lb)
Zone-tailed Hawk in flight

Bill Clark

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Did you know?

  • The Zone-tailed Hawk is one of the least studied hawks in North America
  • This raptor is sometimes attracted to fire! It takes advantage of grass fires to capture small animals escaping from the flames!
  • During the winter months, Zone-tailed Hawks living in the U.S. and northern Mexico will usually migrate south to warmer climates. Individuals throughout the rest of the range usually do not migrate.
  • Like some bird species are want to do, Zone-tailed Hawks occasionally wander out of their "expected" range and end up in some unlikely places. One traveled so far out of its range, it ended up in Novia Scotia, Canada!
  • The Zone-tailed Hawk is also known as the Zone-tailed Buzzard.

Other Hawks

How The Peregrine Fund is Helping

Though The Peregrine Fund does not work directly with Zone-tailed Hawks, our efforts in scientific research, habitat conservation, education, and community development help conserve raptors around the world. We also supply literature to researchers from our avian research library, which helps scientists all around the world gather and share important information on raptor conservation. 

Where they live

The Zone-tailed Hawk lives throughout much of South America, Central America, and Mexico. However, its range in South America isn't continuous, meaning there are only pockets throughout the continent where the species is found.  Its northernmost range extends into the southwestern United States including the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas. 

Though this lovely raptor is considered a Neotropical species, it doesn't spend much time in the dense, rainforest habitats we might picture when we think of the Neotropics. Instead, it prefers to soar, hunt, and nest in lowlands and foothills. It seeks out open country with just a few scattered trees, riparian areas, or pine and oak forests. It can sometimes be seen perching in trees at forest edges, often in shady areas. This medium-sized hawk isn't a high-altitude bird and is most often found in lowlands and foothills throughout its range.

As with many bird species, some Zone-tailed Hawks need to move to warmer climates when the weather starts to grow cold. This often has to do with lack of sufficient food sources during the winter. Though not all Zone-tailed Hawk populations are migratory, individuals living in the southern United States and northern Mexico often are. When days get shorter and a chill is in the air, these hawks will get ready to travel further south. Unlike some birds that travel great distances, these Zone-tailed Hawks usually do not have to go too far to find an inviting climate and enough food. Many end up going no farther south than southern Mexico!

What they do

The Zone-tailed Hawk is a large, but slender-looking hawk. When perched, it appears to be all black, except for its cere and legs, which are yellow, and its tail, which is marked with four distinctive wide white bands (which gives the bird its name). When in flight, this bird shows off a lovely underwing pattern of light gray flight feathers. In fact, the pattern on their underwing is very similar to that of a Turkey Vulture! But the similarities don't stop there.

Zone-tailed Hawks frequently soar just like Turkey Vultures do - with their wings set in a dihedral posture (meaning their wings are slightly uplifted - looking like a wide "V"). Though scientists disagree about the exact benefits of this type of flight (for example, it could help stabilize the bird when it is in the air) many believe it is something else. Namely, that the Zone-tailed Hawk is a bit of a copycat - but for good reason. By copying the flight style of a harmless scavenger bird, the hawk is able to approach unsuspecting prey more closely

Outside of breeding season, the Zone-tailed Hawk is a solitary species - meaning it rarely spends time in the company of other Zone-tailed Hawks.

Why the need our help

Thankfully, the Zone-tailed Hawk is considered a species of Least Concern. This means that scientists believe that populations of this hawk will continue to do well into the foreseeable future. In fact, as of now, their populations are stable (meaning they aren't going up or going down) and scientists estimate there might be around 2,000,000 mature individuals throughout their range. This doesn't mean that this hawk doesn't face any threats. 

What they eat

The Zone-tailed Hawk, like most predators, is an opportunistic feeder. This means if it sees an opportunity to catch something, it will take it! It has a varied diet which includes a number of different birds, including California Quail, Red-shafted Flicker, Acorn Woodpecker, Eared Quetzal, Stellar's Jay, Yellow-rumped Caciques, Tropical Kingbird and even a fellow raptor species - the Eastern Screech Owl. It also feeds on reptiles, and appears to be a fan of just about any type of lizard it can catch, such as Yarrow's Spiny Lizard, Crevice Spiny Lizard, and Mesquite Lizard. The Zone-tailed Hawk also feeds on a number of mammals including chipmunks, bats, Tawny-bellied Cotton Rats, and White-eared Cotton Rats. It has also been documenting feeding on insects including locusts and beetles.

The Zone-tailed Hawk uses a few different hunting techniques to capture its prey. Typically, it spends a lot of time soaring above the canopy searching for its next meal, then it quickly dives onto its prey.

Just like many species of raptors, including Swainson's Hawk, the medium-sized Zone-tailed Hawk is known to hang around grass fires to capture small animals fleeing from the flames.

Nests, eggs, and young

The Zone-tailed Hawk builds a good-sized stick nest in the shape of a platform, usually about 10-15 meters high in a strong tree. It often lines the nest leafy twigs and other greenery. Though some of the nest lining might just be to make the substrate softer and more comfortable for the nestlings and the incubating adults, scientists believe that some of the green material the adults bring to the nest acts as a natural repellent against ectoparasites (parasites that live on the outside) that might infest the nest, the nestlings or even the adults.

Once the time is right, the female will lay between 1 and 2 white or whitish-blue eggs. 

After fledging, the young hawks still need time to practice their flying skills and to hone their hunting abilities through hard work and practice in what appears to us like playing. Scientists studying a nest in Mexico observed several types of interesting behaviors - young Zone-tailed Hawks flew at the tops of trees, grabbing pine cones or sticks and footing them or biting at them while in flight. They also observed young hawks diving off a perch onto the ground, "attacking" sticks or other inanimate objects.

As the juveniles get older, they will start to spend more and more time away from the nest site. Similarly, the adults also spend less time near their young. Scientists have observed some aggressive behavior between the adults and the juveniles, and between the juveniles. This behavior could signal to the young that it is time for them to disperse from their parents' territory.

Zone-tailed Hawks and the World Center for Birds of Prey

The World Center for Birds of Prey offers fun ways to learn about birds of prey. Interactive activities, tours, interesting videos and a children's room with activities from coloring sheets to quizzes to costumes and a touch table are available for the curious mind. We also have several birds of prey on display year-around, including a number of hawk species such as a Red-tailed Hawk and a Harris' Hawk. Knowledgeable staff and volunteers are on hand to answer any questions you may have about Zone-tailed Hawks or any other birds of prey.


BirdLife International. 2020. Buteo albonotatusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22695926A169006783. Downloaded on 22 June 2021.

Global Raptor Information Network. 2021. Species account: Zone-tailed Hawk Buteo albonotatus. Downloaded from on 22 Jun. 2021

Johnson, R. R., R. L. Glinski, and S. W. Matteson (2020). Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.