August 2023
Bird of the Month
Ryan Crouse

Common Black Hawk

One of my favorite birds to study and identify are the raptors that rule the skies of the western US. The variety that can be observed is daunting for a new birdwatcher, but as you learn diagnostic traits of each species you can begin to wade through the different color-phases and morphs that exist within species like the red-tailed hawk or Swainson’s hawk. As with all birds, size, shape, behavior and habitat are invaluable clues when trying to come up with an ID. If you walk along a summertime riparian corridor in central Arizona and spot a dark soaring raptor with large, broad wings and a sharply contrasting white band across its tail, you can place a safe wager that you are looking at a common black hawk.

Ryan Crouse

While the name suggests a different story, this hawk is actually quite scarce across most of the continent, the majority of their range running the length of Central America right into northern South America. However, their northernmost breeding range extends into central Arizona, where they find suitable breeding habitat in the both the Verde Valley and the neighboring Prescott area. About 80% of the North American breeding population resides in the Verde Valley, with nesting pairs found all along the embattled waterway. Black hawks are habitat specialists, which means they require very specific criteria when searching for suitable breeding habitat. They will most often settle in riparian corridors like Granite Creek or the Verde River. They find refuge and suitable nesting sites among the canopies of the cottonwood and sycamore trees that dominate this unique ecosystem.

Their pickiness in finding homes is offset by their willingness to eat just about anything that crosses their path. Their dark pattern makes them hard to spot in the heavily filtered light of a cottonwood crown. From inconspicuous perches they can scan the forest for subtle movement. While they are happy to eat mice and other small mammals, they prefer a largely herpetological diet, with frogs and lizards among their favorite meals. Fish and even minnows and tadpoles are known to be on the menu, with black hawks happy to wade into the water in pursuit of the next snack. Black hawks have even been observed eating a variety of insects as small as ants. Employing various hunting styles to satisfy their diverse diet helps ensure survival in the fragile desert oases they call home.

When perched these hawks tend to be a bit heavier through the torso compared to other hawks, and can seem to slouch. They have almost uniform black plumage save the white banding across their short tails. Their long yellow legs help make them more maneuverable on the ground, and they display a bright yellow cere as well. In flight they are among the most unusual-looking raptors, and are hard to confuse with anything else. Broad, rounded wings coupled with the short tail can give the impression that they are all wing. I’ve personally seen individual birds whose tails barely extended beyond the trailing edges of their wings.

The outer third of the wings will have light patches, but most of the feathers are as black as the torso. The head is tucked deep into the shoulders compared to most other hawks, making the large wings seem even larger. While the tail is short, it is also wide, one of the defining features while on the wing. A large white band and thin white terminal band contrast sharply with the otherwise black tail feathers. On color pattern alone a black hawk could be easy to mistake for a zone-tailed hawk, but a brief comparison of the overall shape alleviates any confusion.

The common black hawk is one species among dozens that rely on the special set of circumstances that create the riparian corridors of the Southwest. Water is fleeting in our part of the world. Cottonwoods grow at incredible speed, requiring a lot of groundwater to sustain them. Since groundwater is never a given, cottonwoods must take advantage of it when available, and will complete their life cycle in a fraction of the time needed by similarly sized deciduous hardwoods. As water continues to become more scarce, this threatened ecosystem full of habitat specialists will continue to shrink. As the cottonwoods go, so will the black hawks.

Only sensible water conservation and proper stewardship of these critical wild areas will preserve them for future generations of humans and black hawks alike. Take a walk through Watson Woods or along Granite Creek for the opportunity to see this uncommon black buteo of the southwestern skies.

Bird Challenge Update

In June I was only able to add two species to my count for the year! Early in the month I helped participants on a birdwalk find the elusive greater pewee at a spot outside of Prescott called Kendall Camp. While camping last weekend I first heard and then saw a common nighthawk right as the final hint of sunlight was present. The end of migration, coupled with nesting activity and a busy personal schedule, made it a down month for me! We’ll try to come back strong in July, but new species in bulk will likely resume in August.

My year count now stands at 181 species!

Birds are deep into the breeding season, so vocalizations have waned a bit. Be on the lookout for young birds of all varieties, which make identification very difficult. They will often look and sound dramatically different from their adult counterparts and, so be easy on yourself if you find this time of the year to be a challenge. Late summer should bring a lot of bird activity as we experience post-breeding dispersion followed by the first wave of the fall migration. Enjoy!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at