Gray hawks (Asturina nitida) range from the Amazon Basin in South America into the southwestern United States. They are migratory in the northern part of their range, arriving in southern Arizona and extreme south Texas in the spring to breed, and occasionally entering New Mexico. These northern members of the species generally depart in mid-October to overwinter in Mexico, although they can be found in south Texas year-round, and rare records exist of winter residents in Arizona. Further south in their range, gray hawks are non-migratory (Glinski, 1998; Kaufman, 2000; Stiles and Skutch, 1989; Terres, 1980).
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); neotropical (Native )
Gray hawks are medium-sized, woodland buteos, with shorter wings and longer tails than typical buteos. Adult birds have a slate-gray back, finely barred gray and white underparts, a black tail with two or three white bands, and a white rump. Juveniles have dark brown backs and buff-streaked underparts, brownish-gray tails with five to nine narrow black bars, and a dark brown eye stripe. Both adult and immature birds have dark gray or black beaks, brown irises, and yellow ceres and legs. Males are smaller than females. Gray hawks fly with accipiter-like movements, alternately flapping and gliding gracefully. Their flight pattern and gray color is similar to that of northern goshawks, which led to their other common name, “Mexican goshawks.” Northern goshawks, however, have a white eyebrow and lack the tail barring distinctive of gray hawks (Glinski, 1998; Kaufman, 2000; Stiles and Skutch, 1989; Terres, 1980; Wheeler and Clark, 1995).
Range mass: 378 to 660 g.
Average mass: 425 g.
Range length: 36 to 46 cm.
Range wingspan: 82 to 98 cm.
Average wingspan: 85 cm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Habitat and Ecology
Throughout their range, gray hawks inhabit woodlands and arid deciduous forests. In the tropics they prefer dry second growth forest and thorn scrub. They tend to select patchy open forest, forest edges, and savanna trees. It is not uncommon to find them on agricultural fields. In denser woodland they tend to keep high in the forest canopy. Gray hawk northern breeding range is found in deciduous cottonwood-willow forests and mesquite bosques along riparian corridors or in evergreen oak woodlands (Glinski, 1998; Stiles and Skutch, 1989).
Range elevation: 0 to 1,800 m.
Habitat Regions: tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: forest ; scrub forest
Other Habitat Features: agricultural ; riparian
Gray hawks are swift, agile fliers that can actively pursue prey by maneuvering through trees. They perch in the forest understory, locate prey in the trees or on the ground with their keen eyesight, and make short dashes to capture it whit their talons. They take reptiles, small mammals, birds, and some insects. In Arizona, Glinski (1988) studied food types delivered to nestlings and found that the diet was composed predominantly of terrestrial and arboreal lizards (74%), garter snakes (5%), nestling and adult birds (11%), and mammals (10%). Bibles’(1999) study of nest productivity in Arizona revealed similar findings, with reptiles comprising 68.6% of prey delivered to nestlings (all were lizards but for one snake), mammals 19.6% (rodents and one rabbit), birds 9.8%, and amphibians 2% (a toad).
Bibles (1999) also revealed that gray hawks prefer home ranges with taller trees and more open understory, probably because these enable them to observe their cryptic prey more easily. The increased flight space may also facilitate greater capture success. Mesquite bosques are the primary foraging areas of gray hawks breeding in Arizona because they have these characteristics. The amount of mesquite bosque seems to be the main factor that determines habitat quality in gray hawk nesting range in Arizona. (Amadon and Phillips, 1939; Bibles, 1999; Glinski, 1988; Glinski and Millsap, 1987; Gurrola-Hidalgo and Chavez, 1996; Stensrude, 1965).
Animal Foods: birds; mammals; amphibians; reptiles; insects
Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates)
Gray hawks are important predators of smaller lizards and snakes throughout their range, though cryptic coloration, speed, and good hiding places can help some reptile prey evade capture. Gray hawks occasionally prey upon small birds. Smaller birds will often deter predation by mobbing birds of prey to drive them away. Olive-throated Parakeets have been seen mobbing a Gray Hawk to force it to leave the area (Eitniear et al., 1990).
There are no documented cases of predation of gray hawks, but like other mid-sized hawks, they may be vulnerable to larger birds of prey. Raptor nestlings in the tropics may on rare occasions succumb to predation from arboreal hunters such as monkeys, coatis, snakes, and other birds, so it is possible that gray hawk nestlings may as well (Emmons and Feer, 1997).
Known prey organisms
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Life History and Behavior
Males court females with calls, undulating flight, and nest building.
Mating System: monogamous
Gray hawks from northern populations arrive in Arizona around mid-March to breed. Nest site fidelity is high, and gray hawk territories remain fairly constant from year to year. Pairs begin building the nest right after courtship, but they partition the work. The male builds the foundation, and the female shapes most of the bowl out of green, leafy twigs from the nest tree or neighboring trees. Northerly-breeding gray hawks primarily nest in cottonwood trees, but they will also nest in willow, ash, oak, hackberry, and mesquites. They choose nest sites in the upper third of the tree, usually in branches away from the trunk. Nests are crow-sized, about 60 cm across. The female usually lays two eggs in early May, although studies of nest productivity in Arizona have recorded nests with four or even eight eggs per clutch with a mean of 1.2 or 1.1 young per occupied breeding site. The eggs are white to pale blue and rarely marked. Only females incubate the eggs. Incubation lasts about 33 days, during which the male captures food for the female. After hatching, the young stay in the nest for about six weeks.
Arizona is the northernmost stronghold of breeding gray hawks, with nearly 80 known nest sites, most of which are protected in nature preserves or conservation easements. Six pairs also nest regularly along the Rio Grande River in south Texas. There is one reported incidence of nesting in New Mexico. Further south in their range, Gray Hawks are non-migratory and nest from December through May in tall, evergreen trees (Bibles, 1999; Brandt, 1951; Glinski, 1988; Glinski, 1998; Hubbard, 1974; Stiles and Skutch, 1989; Terres, 1980).
Breeding season: December through May
Average eggs per season: 1.2.
Range time to hatching: 32 to 34 days.
Average fledging age: 6 weeks.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 2 (low) years.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 2 (low) years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization (Internal ); oviparous
Females alone provide incubation, but the male feeds her. The male provides most of the food for the first two weeks post-hatching, after which the female begins to hunt as well. It is not known how quickly the young can hunt for themselves once they leave the nest.
Parental Investment: altricial ; male parental care ; female parental care
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Buteo nitidus
There are 3 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank. Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species. See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Buteo nitidus
Public Records: 3
Specimens with Barcodes: 3
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 2008Least Concern
- 2007Least Concern
- 2004Not Recognized
- 2000Not Recognized
- 1994Not Recognized
- 1988Not Recognized
Gray hawks have no special conservation status, although their limited numbers at the northern extreme of their range have led management agencies in Arizona to regard them as “sensitive species” and in Texas to consider them “threatened.” Arizona breeding populations seem to be holding steady, with reproduction balancing the losses from mortality. Fortunately, most of the 80 nest sites in Arizona today are located on protected lands. Concerned about how human demand for ground and surface water has seriously reduced desert riparian areas in the southwestern United States, private landowners and public and private conservation organizations have worked to set aside the remaining riparian corridors in southern Arizona. Further protection of the cottonwood-willow forests and mesquite bosques they support will demand protection of the waters that sustain them. If land managers succeed, this will be good news for gray hawks and the myriad other species that use these areas. Their only threat then would be recreational disturbance. Nesting gray hawks are sensitive to human activity near their nests, and many of the protected areas are frequented by recreational groups. Something as innocuous as a family picnic unknowingly staged near a nest tree can cause gray hawks to abandon their nest.
On their wintering range, other factors could lead to gray hawk decline. Glinski banded seven nestlings in Arizona that were recovered in northern Sinaloa state in Mexico, and six of these had been shot. The greatest threat on these wintering grounds, however, is habitat loss. There, the gray hawks’ thornscrub habitat is being widely cleared for agriculture. Gray hawks continue to persist along the living fence rows of trees that divide the agricultural fields, but it is unclear how many hawks this disrupted habitat can support, nor, ultimately, what effects this might have on Arizona’s breeding population. Little is known about demographics or conservation throughout the rest of the gray hawk's range (Glinski, 1988, 1998; Nabhan and Sheridan, 1977; Tellman et al., 1997; urls below).
US Migratory Bird Act: no special status
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
Since the range of gray hawks in the United States is so limited, many birdwatchers come to Arizona and Texas to see them. Bird watching has become increasingly important to the economy of southeastern Arizona. Just as the gray hawk's distribution barely extends into southern Arizona, so do the ranges of many other tropical and subtropical bird species. Several migratory species also use the area’s river corridors as they pass north from Mexico. Over 400 bird species draw birdwatchers from around the world. Their visitation has been an economic boon to the area. In 2001, visitors to two well-known birding spots in southeastern Arizona - Ramsey Canyon Preserve and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area - spent an estimated $10.1 million to $16.9 million. About a third of the gray hawk nest sites in Arizona have been identified in the San Pedro NCR. While gray hawks are not the sole draw to the area, the numbers clearly illustrate the impact that conservation has on regional economies. Gray hawks, as well as people, stand to benefit from this perceived economic value. (Bibles, 1999; Relly, 2002; Viers, 2000).
Positive Impacts: ecotourism
The Grey-lined Hawk (Buteo nitidus) is a smallish raptor found in open country and forest edges. It is sometimes placed in the genus Asturina as Asturina nitida. The species has been split by the AOU from the Grey Hawk. The Grey-lined Hawk is found from southern Costa Rica to Argentina.
The Grey-lined Hawk is 46–61 cm (18–24 in) in length and weighs 475 g (16.8 oz) average. The adult has a pale grey body, the tail is black with three white bands and the legs are orange. It has fine white barring on the upper parts.
Immature birds have dark brown upperparts, a pale-banded brown tail, brown-spotted white underparts and a brown streaked buff head and neck. This species is quite short-winged, and has a fast agile flight for a Buteo.
It feeds mainly on lizards and snakes, but will also take small mammals, birds and frogs. It usually sits on an open high perch from which it swoops on its prey, but will also hunt from a low glide. The nest is of sticks and built high in a tree. The usual clutch is one to three, usually two white to pale blue eggs. The young take about 6 weeks to fledging.
- "Animal Diversity (Asturina nitida)". Retrieved 2008-06-26.
- Baillie, J.E.M.; Hilton-Taylor, C. & Stuart, S.N. (eds.) (2004): 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A Global Species Assessment. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. ISBN 2-8317-0826-5
- ffrench, Richard; O'Neill, John Patton & Eckelberry, Don R. (1991): A guide to the birds of Trinidad and Tobago (2nd edition). Comstock Publishing, Ithaca, N.Y.. ISBN 0-8014-9792-2
- Hilty, Steven L. (2003): Birds of Venezuela. Christopher Helm, London. ISBN 0-7136-6418-5
- Stiles, F. Gary & Skutch, Alexander Frank (1989): A guide to the birds of Costa Rica. Comistock, Ithaca. ISBN 0-8014-9600-4