Sleek, strong and a skilled hunter, the Galapagos hawk (Buteo galapagoensis) is an apex predator endemic to the Galapagos Islands. The North American ancestors of this beautiful bird of prey are believed to have come to the Galapagos some 300,000 years ago, and it has since adapted to life on various islands of the archipelago.
As Darwin found with other species during his time on the Galapagos Islands, the Galapagos hawk not only differs from its ancient ancestors, but also shows variations between different islands of the archipelago. For example, adult male Galapagos hawks on Española Island weigh up to 2.5 pounds, placing them among the largest buteos, or hawks, in the world. But on Marchena Island (not currently open to visitors), where the smallest hawks have been recorded, males average 1.86 pounds, significantly smaller than their not-so-distant relatives. Wingspans also differ greatly across the islands, with adult wingspans ranging from 46 to 55 inches.
Whatever their size, all Galapagos hawks have one thing in common: they are excellent hunters. Soaring at anywhere between 165 feet and 650 feet, the hawks scan the landscape for prey, which may include anything from giant centipedes to locusts, snakes, lizards, rodents, juvenile iguanas and turtle hatchlings. When they strike, they use their forceful beaks and fearsome feet and talons to quickly dispatch of their prey. They also scavenge, happily feeding on rancid carrion when necessary.
Being an apex predator, Galapagos hawks have almost no fear of humans, happily ignoring them even when they come close. As Darwin wrote after his trip to the Galapagos: “A gun is here almost superfluous; for with the muzzle I pushed a hawk out of the branch of a tree.”
Humans, however, have contributed directly to the precarious situation in which the Galapagos hawk now finds itself. Since humans arrived on the islands — and cats along with them — the hawk population has dwindled. They are now extinct on some islands and are classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, which puts the total population at between 270 and 330 mature individuals. Today they are mainly seen on the larger islands, including Isabela and Fernandina.
Read more about the Galapagos Hawk at Galapagos Conservation Trust.
Other Galapagos Wildlife