Last week at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival I wanted to see a zone-tailed hawk but the only way to do it was to check every vulture.
The relationship between zone-tailed hawks and turkey vultures goes way back. Both are South and Central American birds who’ve hung out together for longer than we can imagine — so much so that the hawks now resemble the vultures. Turkey vultures moved into North America but the hawks didn’t commit that far, only coming to Arizona, New Mexico and southern Texas in the summer.
Zone-tailed hawks (Buteo albonotatus) like to soar with turkey vultures and they easily blend in. The hawks are slightly smaller, have the same bi-color underwings (dark leading edge and pale trailing edge), and soar with their wings set in a dihedral.
Where I come from a dark, soaring V means vulture so I wouldn’t give those birds a second thought, but look at the three birds soaring at the top left of Crossley’s illustration. One of them isn’t a turkey vulture. Can you tell which one?
Our trip leader, Bill Clark, told us how to find a zone-tailed “needle” in the turkey vulture “haystack.” Check each bird’s head and feet.
Turkey vultures have tiny, bald, reddish heads. Zone-tailed hawks have dark, feathered, hawk-sized heads. Turkey vultures have drab legs and feet. Zone-tailed hawks have bright yellow legs and feet. Turkey vultures have plain tails. Zone-tailed hawks are named for the white “zone” band on their black tails.
Fortunately my “Life Bird” zone-tailed hawk flew quite close. I saw his dark head, his yellow legs and feet, and the white zone on his tail. Woo hoo!
Now that I’m back in Pittsburgh it’s a relief that I don’t have to check every vulture.
(illustration from The Crossley ID Guide Raptors via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Click on the image to see the original)