This medium-sized hawk measures somewhat less than two feet in length and weighs in at about two pounds. The adult is uniformly black on the head and body with a white band across the middle of the tail. The fleshy patch of skin at the base of the upper bill where the nostrils exit is yellow.
Its U.S. breeding range is in the desert Southwest, primarily in southwestern New Mexico, central Arizona, and the Davis mountain region of Texas. The year-round range of the species is Mexico and Central America, down to parts of South America.
The Audubon Society states that the ironically named Common Black hawk is uncommon in the U.S., where only some 250 pairs are estimated to occur. As such, the species is of conservation concern with loss of breeding habitat the primary threat to its persistence. Common Black hawks have also been observed to stop using historic nesting areas where human disturbance intensified.
While it is an arid country bird, the Common Black hawk is normally found near water courses, swamps, and other water bodies adjacent to open forests, where it feeds on aquatic invertebrates and vertebrates, such as crabs, crayfish, fish, and frogs. It also takes small mammals and reptiles and may even dine on large insects. Hunting behavior involves watching for prey from a perch and diving down to attack, or hopping along rocks or stream sides to pursue an aquatic meal.
Nests are usually in cottonwoods or sycamore trees and the female remains with the 1-3 nestlings full time for a couple of weeks, as the male hunts and brings food for her and the chicks. After fledging at 6-7 weeks of age, the adults continue to attend to and feed the young for another month or so.
The individual photographed here was seen near the 4th of July campground along trail 78 in the Cibola National Forest on May 22. There was no running water or pools in the ravine, making the sighting rather unexpected. The bird was actively vocalizing with its typical high-pitched, repetitive, short screeching call, normally associated with defense of a nest against a perceived disturbance, represented at that time by myself and my dog.
If the bird was nesting in that valley it would be an unusual event, rather out of range and an odd habitat for the species. I spoke with a hiker a week later at the same trailhead who had seen two of these hawks in the same area I saw and photographed this one. His description matched the appearance of the Black hawk. I also saw a single Black hawk soaring and calling there two weeks later. These observations suggest that there is a breeding pair of Black hawks in this forest.