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Gray Hawk

Buteo plagiatus ORDER: ACCIPITRIFORMES FAMILY: ACCIPITRIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A tropical species that barely crosses the border into Arizona and Texas, the Gray Hawk is an elegant, raincloud-gray raptor with neatly barred underparts. They spend their days gracefully soaring over open areas or perched in cottonwoods, willows, and mesquites along lowland streams. They patiently watch for lizards, then catch them with a swift dart toward the ground. Gray Hawks are small for a hawk in the genus Buteo, and their longish tails and flap-and-glide flight style can make them resemble accipiters.

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Keys to identification Help

Hawks
Hawks
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Gray Hawks are medium-sized raptors. Like other buteos they have short, broad wings. The tail is fairly long (especially immatures), giving them some resemblance to an accipiter. They appear long-legged when perched. Females are noticeably larger than males.

  • Color Pattern

    Adult Gray Hawks are pale gray birds with finely barred chests and prominently banded black-and-white tails. The undertail coverts are white; the wingtips are dark. Immatures have dark brown backs with heavy brown streaks and spots on the underparts. Their faces are boldly patterned with a white cheek and eyebrow separated by a dark stripe through the eye.

  • Behavior

    Gray Hawks perch below the forest canopy looking for reptilian prey, which they catch with sudden, short flights to the ground or nearby tree trunks. They commonly soar in the early afternoon with their tail fanned and wings level, often lower to the ground than other raptors. Their flight is an accipiterlike pattern of intermittent flaps and glides.

  • Habitat

    In their very restricted U.S. range, Gray Hawks live in thorn-scrub woodlands, savannahs, and forest edges and clearings. They nest in stands of mesquite, cottonwood, and willow along rivers and streams.

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Gray Hawk Range Map
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Similar Species

Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks are accipiters; they have longer tails and are generally smaller than Gray Hawks. Adults have orange-barred breasts rather than the Gray Hawk’s neat gray barring. Immature accipiters don’t have the bold white-and brown face pattern of young Gray Hawks. Among buteos, Red-tailed Hawks are larger than Gray Hawks, with pale underparts and a distinctive dark belly band. Adult Broad-winged Hawks have orange streaking on the breast and belly, a dark cheek patch, and a black outline around the underside of the wing. Immature Broad-winged Hawks have a dark cheek patch and a more finely barred, shorter tail than Gray Hawks. Likewise, Red-shouldered Hawks have thinner white bands on a more reddish tail and a buffy translucent crescent near the wingtips. Both Broad-winged and Red-shouldered Hawks lack the Gray Hawk’s white "U" at the base of the upper side of the tail. In south Texas, the rare Hook-billed Kite has a longer tail, distinctive paddle-shaped wings, and a much larger bill.

Find This Bird

To find Gray Hawks in their very limited United States range, visit cottonwood and willow stands along rivers in southern Arizona or the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas. During breeding season, listen for their whistled calls in wooded lowlands. They can be very inconspicuous as they sit perched in the forest canopy; if you can’t find them there then try scanning the skies in late morning and afternoon, when Gray Hawks soaring in the heat can be quite easy to pick out.