Naturalist’s Notebook: A Zone-tailed Hawk Gets Its Prey

By John Schmitt
From the Summer 2014 issue of Living Bird magazine.
July 15, 2014

9 October 1997
Near Popaloapan River
State of Veracruz, Mexico

I was determined to look closely at every big, dark, soaring raptor I saw while driving along the Popaloapan River in Mexico, and my efforts paid off many times. Although the birds usually turned out to be Black Vultures or Turkey Vultures, I was rewarded with fine views of both Great and Common black-hawks and an occasional Zone-tailed Hawk. The most interesting observation of the day was a Zone-tailed Hawk that made three attacks on prey as I watched.

When I first saw the bird, it was circling about 100 feet up, teetering like a Turkey Vulture, with its wings held in a swept-back dihedral as it gradually descended in a series of swerves and loops. Its slow, wheeling descent often swung very wide from where it would ultimately crash down in its attempt to capture prey. The actual attack was a dramatic departure from its lazy vulturelike mode of flight: the hawk was sailing along on a level trajectory at about 20 feet above the ground, when it abruptly turned down into a swift, nearly vertical stoop with its wings nearly folded to its body.

This first stealthy attack failed, and all the hawk had in its talons as it rose from the ground was a tuft of plant debris, which it disdainfully dropped. A second attempt, using the same stealthy manner of flight, also failed. But on the third attempt, the Zone-tailed Hawk abruptly plunged earthward, dropping out of my view just beyond a rise. A few minutes later, it reappeared, flapping strongly up from the ground, clutching a small iguana firmly in its talons, carrying it forward under its chest, with the lizard’s long, thin tail sweeping well back beyond the end of the hawk’s tail.