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Master Naturalists: White-tailed hawk is also a buzzard

By Mary Meredith, and Paul Meredith
May 5, 2010 at 12:05 a.m.

A white-tailed hawk displays his distinctive white underside and single black tail band, while being held by Senior Keeper Pete Grantham at the Texas Zoo.  Vincent, as they call him, is a permanent zoo resident, used for educational purposes.  This uncommon bird was rescued and rehabilitated after having half his right wing amputated after he was shot.  Unable to fly, he will  never be able to  live in the wild.

By Mary Meredith and Paul Meredith and Carey Strobel

Editor's note: This is Part I of a two-part series on white-tailed hawks. Part II will look at what threatens it.

Texas enjoys a number of specialty bird species.

This refers, for one thing, to species found in no other part of the U.S.

It can also refer to species that are especially numerous in Texas.

One of Texas' specialty species is the white-tailed hawk (Buteo albicaudatus). "Buteo" is the Latin name for the common buzzard, but it's also used to refer to some medium-sized, wide-ranging raptors with a robust body and broad wings.

In some countries, members of this group are called buzzards, but hawk is used in North America. In fact, Audubon referred to Harris' hawk as "Harris' buzzard" in his print of the hawk. Because both buzzard and hawk are ambiguous, Buteo is used as the scientific name for this group of raptors.

White-tailed hawks are found in Texas in rather small numbers. They're a tropical species, ranging north from Argentina along the South American coast, the Mexican coast, and crossing into Texas in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

They've also colonized Caribbean islands, mainly the southern ones.

These Buteos are rarely found in rainy areas, and are not often found very far inland.

Spotting one is a special treat for visitors and residents alike. In Texas, the range of this large, uniquely-colored bird is from the Rio Grande up along the Gulf Coast, sometimes as far north as the Houston area.

Our coastal grasslands and dry brush country in South Texas are the best places to see a white-tailed hawk.

A mature one can be identified by its unique colors. An adult male's head and the upper side of his body are mostly dark gray, with rusty-colored patches on his shoulders.

But his chest and underside are white, and he has an immaculate white tail with one black band near the tip.

When flying, he can be identified by that white underside and the black band near the tip of his white tail.

In contrast, an adult female has darker upper parts, and more barring on her chest and underside.

A juvenile has less distinctive coloring, but its tail is about 15 percent longer than an adults. It shows adult coloration by its second year.

Like most Buteos, an adult white-tailed is considered stocky. It's 23- to 24-inches long, with wingspan 48- to 54-inches and broad wings that taper to a point. It has a short, broad tail, and its wing feathers extend beyond the tip of its tail when perched.

A white-tailed is about the same size as the more common red-tailed hawk, but the wings of a white-tailed appear more pointed and its tail proportionally shorter.

The portion of its habitat that includes South Texas' hot, arid, brushy areas has mesquite forests, other thorny shrubs, and a ground cover of grasses and cacti, plus scattered stands of oaks.

Other kinds of trees may grow along the area's rivers and streams. These trees include subtropical species such as Texas ebony.

A white-tailed prefers being near the shore. It doesn't range far inland, preferring open or semi-open areas with few trees to hinder its flight, and altitudes of less than 2,000 feet.

It hunts either from a perch or on the wing. And it either glides slowly over the fields or hovers in one place using its beating wings, dropping feet-first into the grass below to snare its prey.

Rabbits, woodrats and other small mammals are its main foods. But it also eats snakes, lizards, frogs, birds and large insects. And it hunts the edges of prairie fires for fleeing animals.

It nests in several separate pockets - distinct locations that are not neighboring or continuous locations - along its range. It doesn't migrate, but is a permanent resident in its home territory.

Its nest, a bulky platform of sticks in the top of a low tree or yucca, is often refurbished and reused by the same pair from year to year.

Note: Kemp's Ridley sea turtles' nesting season is upon us. If you spot a turtle or a turtle nest, do not touch it. Immediately call the Turtle Hotline - 1-866-887-8535 (1-866-TURTLE-5) to report your discovery and get instructions.

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at paulmary0211@sbcglobal.net. Carey Strobel contributed to this article. She is a wildlife biologist at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where she works with the whooping cranes and with other endeavors at the refuge. She did her master's thesis on white-tailed hawks in South Texas.

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