Bird GuideHawks and EaglesZone-tailed Hawk

At a Glance

Seen soaring at a distance over rugged country in the southwest, the Zone-tail looks remarkably like a Turkey Vulture. It may be overlooked even by birders who are searching for it. This close resemblance may fool other creatures as well: Small animals in the west learn to ignore the abundant and harmless Turkey Vultures, and they may fail to notice an approaching Zone-tailed Hawk until it is too late.
Hawk-like Birds, Hawks and Eagles
Low Concern
Arroyos and Canyons, Desert and Arid Habitats, Forests and Woodlands, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets
California, Plains, Southwest, Texas
Direct Flight, Flap/Glide, Rapid Wingbeats, Soaring

Range & Identification

Migration & Range Maps

Most withdraw from United States in winter, although a few are seen in southern Texas at that season.


18 1/2 -21 1/2" (47-55 cm). W. 4' (1.2 m). Flying at a distance, looks much like Turkey Vulture: blackish body, two-toned wings, soars with wings held in shallow V. With closer view, shows a few white tail-bands, narrow barring on wings, slightly different shape from vulture. Juvenile may lack obvious white tail-bands.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Black, Gray, White, Yellow
Wing Shape
Broad, Fingered, Long
Tail Shape
Rounded, Square-tipped

Songs and Calls

A loud scream falling in pitch at the end.
Call Pattern
Flat, Simple
Call Type


River woodlands, desert mountains, canyons. Mostly forages over open country, such as grassland, desert, chaparral, or areas with scattered trees. Seems to favor hilly or mountainous terrain, and may soar on updrafts from cliffs. Nests in very large trees, often in isolated groves along rivers, in steep canyons, or near cliffs.



2, sometimes 1-3. White (or pale bluish-white when freshly laid), sometimes with a few spots of tan or gray. Incubation is probably by the female only, about 35 days.


Probably the female stays with the young during the first two weeks after they hatch, while the male brings food and female gives it to the young; later, both sexes hunt. Young are able to fly in about 6-7 weeks.

Feeding Behavior

In hunting, it soars and circles like a vulture, and thus may be ignored by smaller animals below. When it spots prey, it continues to circle as before, but gradually moves off to side and lower; as soon as it is screened from the prey animal by some kind of cover, the hawk turns and makes a direct, powerful attack, taking the prey by surprise. Sometimes makes steeper direct dives without this kind of stealthy approach.


Mostly lizards, mammals, birds. Diet varies with location. In some areas, may specialize on certain large lizards, such as spiny lizards or collared lizards. In other areas, birds are main items in diet. Also eats many small mammals, plus some frogs, snakes, insects, centipedes.


In breeding season, pairs may circle high in air, calling. In another display, bird flaps to high elevation while calling and then dives steeply, almost to ground. Nest site is typically in tall tree such as cottonwood or pine, along river or near cliffs; tree is often somewhat isolated and is usually among the largest in the vicinity. Nest is usually more than 30' above ground, up to 100' or higher. Sometimes nests on cliff ledges. Nest is a bulky platform of sticks, lined with green leafy twigs. Same nest site may be used for many years.

Climate Vulnerability

Conservation Status

Uncommon and local, and has disappeared from some former nesting areas. Loss of nesting sites, such as tall cottonwoods along streams, may be a factor in declines.

Climate Map

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Zone-tailed Hawk. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.

Climate Threats Facing the Zone-tailed Hawk

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.

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