The Galapagos Hawk: An Endangered Predator

Desiree Michels


Visitors: 13

With a host of unique and endemic species to be encountered, wildlife holidays in Galapagos are a very sought-after experience among nature lovers. The archipelago's avian species are particularly abundant, with a huge resident population and some of the highest seabird concentrations in the world.

Of the landbirds, the majority of the 29 resident species are endemic, including the Galapagos Hawk – the islands’ only breeding raptor. Unlike other species, it is somewhat difficult to encounter on wildlife holidays in Galapagos, and is far more likely to be seen circling high above in the sky than on land.

Predatory and Endangered

The bird is the apex predator of the region, with no natural enemies. Ironically, however, its fearlessness has led to a rapid decline in its numbers due to human hunting, and it is already extinct on several islands. Competition with introduced species for food and habitat has also been a contributing factor, and there are now only around 150 breeding pairs left on the archipelago – making it one of the rarest raptors in the world. It is most closely related to the North American Swainson's Hawk, and DNA research suggests that its original ancestors arrived on the islands around 300,000 years ago.

Appearance

Juveniles are initially a pale, mottled creamy colour, but the feathers darken as they mature. As adults, they are very dark brown, almost black in colour. Physically they are very powerful, with a body length up to around 55cm and a wingspan that can stretch to 120cm. Their distinctive broad wings and tail are adapted so that they can soar the skies in search of prey. They also have very large, strong talons and superb vision. It is often difficult to determine the sex; in general, however, females are larger than males.

A Unique Breeding Behaviour

The hawks tend to build their nests at low altitudes, either in the bottom branches of a tree or on the ground. Breeding can occur all year round, and they use the same nest over and over again, adding to it with more materials every year. Their most unusual behaviour is their practice of cooperative polyandry, which means that while females have multiple mates (up to seven) throughout a breeding period, the males are monogamous. Males help to incubate the eggs and, once hatched, play a large role in raising the chicks. While the female usually lays three eggs, in most cases only one survives.

A Varied Diet

The birds make excellent use of their powerful talons and hunt for snakes, lizards, rodents, turtle hatchlings and juvenile iguanas, although a large part of their diet is made up of invertebrates, such as centipedes and locusts. They are also active and opportunistic scavengers, feeding on any carrion they may find.

See Them on Wildlife Holidays in Galapagos

Despite their relatively small numbers, it certainly is possible for visitors on wildlife holidays in Galapagos to see the bird at any time of the year, particularly on the larger islands like Fernandina and Isabela. While they were resident on all of the islands at one point, they are extinct on Seymour, San Cristobal, Baltra, Daphne and Floreana today.

Conservation

The species is considered endangered and has been under conservation protection since 1959, first from the Ecuadorian government and then by UNESCO. Other conservation groups like the Peregrine Fund are also conducting ecological monitoring and research in order to raise awareness of the need to protect this beautiful bird and its habitat.

Author Plate

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in the Galapagos Islands. For those interested in wildlife holidays in Galapagos, Marissa recommends the itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of species in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.

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