Short-tailed Hawks – Determining Age and Color Type

The Short-tailed Hawk has one of most restricted ranges of any raptor in the ABA area – found only in the peninsula of Florida and rarely, in extreme southern Texas and southeastern Arizona. In Florida, they are found year-round in the southern third of the state and then expand north to the Gainesville area during the breeding season. Throughout that range, the Short-tailed Hawk is uncommon. Typically, the best habitats to find this species are forested areas with somewhat open canopies, especially around hammocks and mangrove forests.

Unlike other Buteos, the Short-tailed Hawk spends almost the entire day airborne. Short-tailed Hawks hunt prey by kiting high above the canopy, scanning for small birds and reptiles and then tucking up their wings and diving down into the trees. Because of these hunting habits, this species is almost never seen perched.

Two color types exist for the Short-tailed Hawk – dark and light. Unlike some other Buteos with multiple color types, the Short-tailed does not have an intermediate color type.

Short-tailed Hawk - molting juvenile light type kiting above the treetops in Key West, FL (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)


General Identification Tips –

The Short-tailed Hawk is similar in size to the Broad-winged Hawk, but is intermediate in overall shape and structure between the Broad-winged Hawk and Swainson’s Hawk. Compared to Broad-winged Hawks, the Short-tailed is slightly longer-winged and the wingtips are not as pointed or swept-back. Also, the underside of the secondary flight feathers of the Short-tailed Hawk are dark in both the dark and light color types, whereas the Broad-winged Hawk has light secondary flight feathers in both its light and dark color types. The Swainson’s Hawk is a larger raptor, with much longer and narrower wings and a longer tail. All three of these species occur in Florida, although Swainson’s Hawk is quite rare. Check out the composite photo below, showing from left to right, a juvenile light type (although fairly heavily-marked) Swainson’s Hawk; a juvenile dark type Short-tailed Hawk; and a heavily-marked juvenile light type Broad-winged Hawk. Take a close look at the overall shape of each of these three species, particularly the wing shape. Another helpful feature of telling Short-tailed Hawks from other raptors at a distance, is that the Short-tailed soars with its wingtips flipped up into the air – this is very different from other Buteos, which typically show a very flat wing profile when soaring.

Swainson's Hawk (left), Short-tailed Hawk (center), and Broad-winged Hawk (right) - NOTE THAT THESE ARE NOT TO SCALE. (Photo composite by Alex Lamoreaux)


Determining Color Type and Age – 

As I mentioned earlier, the Short-tailed Hawk has a light and dark color type. Individuals are born either dark or light and remain that color type for their entire life – they never ‘morph’ between the two. Dark type birds are much more common than light types, with an estimated 80% of the Florida population being dark.

Short-tailed Hawk - juvenile light type - showing dark eyes because it is transitioning into adult plumage (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Light type birds are fairly similar in juvenile and adult plumage and often somewhat difficult to tell apart, whereas dark type birds are noticeably different in juvenile and adult plumage and are easy to tell apart. Both adult and juvenile light type birds are a solid brown coloration on their uppersides. The upperside of adults typically appears to be a darker, solid brown color and juveniles are a lighter brown often with some tawny markings throughout. The underside of both adult and juvenile light types is very white. The underwing coverts and the entire breast and belly is pure white. The flight feathers on the wings are gray with black barring along the trailing edge. The tails of light type Short-tailed Hawks are brown on the upperside and gray on the underside, with black barring noticeable on both sides occasionally. When present, the subterminal band on the tail is thicker and darker than the other tail bands. Adult birds have much more distinct black markings on the trailing edge of their underwings as well as on their tail. Adult birds also show a darker, solid brown cap on their heads compared to the lighter, streaky brown head of juveniles. Furthermore, adults often show a chestnut patch on the sides of their neck.

Short-tailed Hawk - juvenile light type - showing dark eyes because it is transitioning into adult plumage (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Dark type birds are much easier to age. Both adult and juveniles show a solid dark brown (almost pure black) upperside. The underwing coverts of adults as well as their head, breast, and belly is solid dark brown. Juvenile Short-tailed Hawks had a solid dark brown head and breast, but their belly is streaked with white and gray markings. The underwing coverts of juvenile dark types is dark brown, mottled with gray and white. The trailing edge of the wing as well as the tail bands are darker and more noticeable on adults than on juveniles.

Short-tailed Hawk - adult dark type (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Short-tailed Hawk - juvenile dark type (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Short-tailed Hawk - juvenile dark type (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Short-tailed Hawk - juvenile dark type (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)