Every animal has certain “tells” that are innately perceptible to other animals, whether it’s a visual cue like a curled lip, an audible one like a growl, or even a threat communicated through mere appearance. As a rabbit, you may not know the taxonomical difference between a hawk and a pigeon the way that a human would, but you can tell by size, posture, and demeanor towards you that one wants to eat you and the other doesn’t. Fear the one, ignore the other. That’s how you survive.
But what if your opponent lies about what he is?
Every bird of prey, from the tiny and colorful American kestrel to the awe-inspiring golden eagle, is a hardened killer. And if you’re one of their preferred meals, you instinctively know to avoid them. But how do you avoid a predator that looks and acts harmless? One that looks like a vulture, for instance? A true vulture, after all, is about as dangerous as a baked potato. They eat dead things. No threat to the living there. No animal is afraid of a vulture. But one very dangerous raptor, from the same family of big, broad-winged hawks as the red-tailed hawk, looks, flies, and otherwise acts just like a vulture. Zone-tailed hawks are completely black, except for a white band across their tail and flight feathers that appear pale when viewed from below, patterns that are roughly identical to a vulture’s plumage. They hold their wings in an arched “V” shape when they fly, just like vultures do. They wobble from side to side when they soar, just like vultures. They even join groups of vultures, traveling with them, mimicking their behavior, doing everything real vultures do except cleaning up carcasses. It’s the perfect disguise, a predator designed to mimic the one animal you’d least suspect would be a threat. And it works perfectly. Prey species drop their guard because they mistake the zone-tailed hawk for just one more carrion-eater in the passing group. The only thing the disguise lacks is the bald head, but from a distance their black feathers easily let them pass for black vultures or immature turkey vultures, since the latter bird doesn’t develop its famed red complexion until later in life.
Being part of the buteo family, zone-tailed hawks are generalists, not specialized toward any particular kind of prey but possessing a decent mix of power and speed that lets them make the most of whatever they come across. Unlike their fellow buteos, however, their clever disguise gives them a way to get much closer to prey without setting off any alarms, not only increasing their chances of catching a meal but potentially reducing the length of the chase, and thus the energy expended in the hunt. From a birdwatcher’s perspective, zone-tailed hawks are hard to spot for the same reason that they’re such good predators. It takes a trained eye to pick up the differences between their posture and that of a real vulture, particularly from a distance. They’re the hawk that you might well have seen without even realizing it. They’re predominantly a Central and South American species, only venturing into North America as far as the border states, Arizona included. That makes this professional impersonator a privileged sight to see, assuming that you manage to recognize them for what they really are.
A beautiful, skilled, and deceptive predator.