Vultures and the Zone-tailed Hawk

A Soaring Turkey Vulture

Soaring Turkey Vulture (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

There are two species of vultures found in the U.S., and both are seen in southern Arizona. For the most part, Turkey Vultures (the more widespread and common) are Arizona migrants, flying up from Mexico in the spring to nest and vacation here before returning to their winter grounds in the fall. The smaller Black Vulture is a year-round resident of southern and southeast states, and although rarely seen in the SaddleBrooke area, is readily found in Pinal County’s Santa Cruz Flats. Turkey Vultures are distinguished by their large size, soaring and gliding high in the summer sky; wings raised dihedral and rocking side-to-side. From below, their silver and black plumage is distinctive, as is (if you can see it) their small naked head, red in adults but black in juvenile birds.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture in San Carlos, Mexico (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

By contrast, Black Vultures have shorter wings and tails, and appear solid black from below except for diagnostic silver-white wingtips. Head color also differs from their cousins; black for juveniles and gray for adults. Both vultures feed on carrion, and you’ll often scatter them from feasting on roadkill when you drive backroads. Neither species has much to say, and Sibley describes their voice as soft hissing, barking, clucking and whining. Like some golfers I know.

Rare Zone-tailed Hawk near Oracle

Rare U.S. Zone-tailed Hawk near Oracle, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

So, in this part of the country when you look up and see a large black bird soaring and sailing gently high in the sky, it’s most often a vulture and around here most likely a Turkey Vulture. But not always. A similar-looking, but quite different bird found here during the same time of year, is the Zone-tailed Hawk. This is a relatively rare bird in the U.S. with a total of perhaps only 300 nesting pairs; a bird typically seen here only in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, and often mistaken for a Turkey Vulture when it is seen. The Zone-tailed Hawk is close to the Turkey Vulture in size, has a near-identical underwing pattern of black and silver and soars and sails like the vulture. And to add to the confusion, the Zone-tailed is often found together with Turkey Vultures, sailing alongside one or two or even mixed in with a larger kettle of vultures. From a distance, distinguishing one from the other is difficult at best, and if it weren’t for the white tail bands on the hawk it would be near impossible. So next time you’re inclined to shake off circling black birds as ‘just vultures’, raise your binoculars and take a closer look. You could find one of those 600 rare hawks. At least one nesting pair has been documented in the Canada del Oro Wash near SaddleBrooke’s Preserve, and we’ve seen a solitary Zone-tailed Hawk numerous times from our yard.

Zone-tailed Hawk with surprised prey

Zone-tailed Hawk with surprised prey (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Zone-tailed Hawks have nothing in common with Turkey Vultures, so you might ask what’s up with this. And, as usual, there’s an answer. Turns out this is intentional deception, with the hawk taking advantage of his similar appearance and likely evolving it over time through genetic selection. Vultures eat roadkill and other well-dead critters. Zone-tailed Hawks like hot-blooded fresh meat like rabbits and rodents, neither of which are known for their keen eyesight. Suppose you’re a bunny enjoying a sunny morning, shopping for produce. A dark shadow passes over. You pause and take a weak-eyed look skyward, seeing only a couple of vultures circling slowly in the summer heat, looking for dead stuff, right? So you lower your head and go back to the veggies. Not always the right move.


(This article was published in the August, 2017, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)


About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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1 Response to Vultures and the Zone-tailed Hawk

  1. Cheryl Pettijohn says:

    Will take a closer look from now on. Thanks.

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