Grey-backed hawk (Leucopternis occidentalis)

Spanish: Busardo Dorsigrís, Gavilán Dorsigris
GenusLeucopternis (1)
SizeLength: 45 - 48 cm (2)

The grey-backed hawk is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

Like other birds of prey, the grey-backed hawk (Leucopternis occidentalis) is an efficient hunter, possessing a tooth-like ridge on its upper bill, which is used to break the spine of its prey (4). This species can be distinguished by a broad, blackish mantle, which contrasts with the bright white throat, breast and underparts. The head and nape are grey with white streaks, the legs are yellow, and the tail is white, except for a black horizontal band just above the tail tips (2).

The juvenile grey-backed hawk is similar to the adult, except that the mantle is lighter and streaked with brown. The grey-backed hawk produces a distinctive, husky scream, ‘shreeyr’, which is often made repeatedly during flight (2).

The grey-backed hawk is found in scattered sites around western Ecuador and the northwest of Peru (2).

The grey-backed hawk is most commonly found in moist evergreen forest, but may also occupy dry deciduous forest. This species has a preference for the forest edge, and is generally found at elevations between 100 and 1,400 metres, although it has also been observed as high as 2,900 metres (2).

The grey-backed hawk has a varied diet, mainly feeding upon reptiles during the breeding season, but also taking rodents, small birds, amphibians, crabs, earthworms and large insects (2) (5). On average, the grey-backed hawk will tackle prey at least as long as its own body, though it has been observed, on occasion, to take prey almost twice its length (5).

Studies suggest that the grey-backed hawk breeds almost all year round, but most frequently during the rainy season, from January to June. A large nest of up to 79 centimetres in diameter is constructed in the upper canopy of tall trees, in which the female lays a single bluish-white egg. Following the 36-day incubation period, the chick remains in the nest for a further 72 days, by which time it is ready to leave (5).

The forests of western Ecuador are considered to be one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems, and as a result of logging and clearance for agriculture, over 90 percent is now deforested. The impact of this habitat destruction on grey-backed hawk populations has undoubtedly been severe. As western Ecuador becomes increasingly developed and road networks expand, the pressure on this species and its habitat will only increase. Even in the areas where the grey-backed hawk is protected, such as the Mache-Chindul Ecological Reserve, illegal logging and hunting are common (2), and other activities that are detrimental to the bird’s habitat, such as livestock grazing, have been allowed to continue (6).

Although enforcement is severely lacking, populations of the grey-backed hawk residing within conservation areas, such as Machalilla National Park and Mache-Chindul Ecological Reserve in Ecuador, and Tumbes Reserved Zone (a part of the Northwest Peru Biosphere Reserve) in Peru, do at least receive a modicum of protection (2).

Nevertheless, in order to ensure the survival of this species, protection of existing sites must be consolidated, and further surveys of the bird’s population, as well as mapping of its distribution, should be undertaken so that new protected sites can be established (2).

Find out more about the grey-backed hawk and its conservation:

More information about biodiversity and conservation in western Ecuador:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2008)
  2. BirdLife International (October, 2008)
  3. CITES (October, 2008)
  4. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  5. Vargas, H. (1995) Food Habits, Breeding Biology, and Status of the Gray-backed Hawk (Leucopternis occidentalis) in Western Ecuador. M.Sc. Thesis, Boise State University, Idaho.
  6. World Database on Protected Areas (October, 2008)