Proposal (523) to South American Classification Committee


Split Gray Hawk (Buteo nitidus) into two species




NOTE:  The following proposal was submitted to and passed by the North American Classification Committee and is posted here, with minor editing, with the permission of the authors.  This proposed split only affects us indirectly in terms of classification by truncating the range of B. nitidus, but it does affect directly our English name usage (change to Gray-lined Hawk).



Description of the problem:


Gray Hawk (Buteo nitidus, hereafter B. n. nitidus) was described by Latham (1790) as Falco nitidus, based on a specimen from Cayenne, French Guiana.  Subsequently, a new taxon based on a specimen from Veracruz, Mexico, was described by Schlegel (1862) as Asturina plagiata (hereafter B. n. plagiatus).  Schlegel considered B. n. plagiatus a separate species from B. n. nitidus because it was larger, had more robust tarsi and feet, and had a greater number of tail bands.  In their review of North American birds, Baird et al. (1874) concluded the two taxa were climatic races of the same species, and this view has largely prevailed since (Bierregaard 1994, Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001, AOU 2010).  However, not all ornithologists agree with this treatment.  Miller and Griscom (1921), van Rossem (1930), and Sibley and Monroe (1990) treated the taxa as distinct species.  Friedmann (1950), Stresemann and Amadon (1979), and the AOU (1983) treated them as conspecific, but commented that the taxa might be full species.  Johnson and Peeters (1963), in their detailed analysis of plumage variation of woodland hawks, concluded, “striking differences between the [northern and southern] races [of Gray Hawk] are obvious”.  These authors noted that the plumage discontinuity occurs coincident with a gap in the species’ distribution in Costa Rica, which is also described by Stiles and Skutch (1989).  Blake (1977) presented measurement data for all recognized subspecies of Gray Hawk, but he did not quantitatively analyze measurement differences between taxa; he treated them as conspecific, but noted that many consider them separate species.  Millsap (1986) and Riesing et al. (2003) evaluated morphological and genetic differences between the two taxa, respectively, and concluded that they differed markedly.


New information: 


Until recently there was no comprehensive published analysis of plumage, measurement, and vocal data for the Gray Hawk on which to base a decision regarding the species-level status of the two taxa (Banks et al. 2006).  In a recent paper, Millsap et al (2011) compared plumages, morphology, and vocalizations of B. n. nitidus and B. n. plagiatus, and found that allopatric B. n. nitidus and B. n. plagiatus differ diagnosably at very high probability levels in all age and sex classes across a range of plumage, measurement, and vocalization characters.  Adjacent B. n. nitidus and B. n. plagiatus populations were entirely separable based on plumage, even where ranges of the two taxa approach one another in Costa Rica.  Discriminant function analysis (DFA) using measurements of body and tail pattern characters of 405 museum specimens resulted in correct classification of > 98% of juveniles and adult males and 88% of adult females, and DFA using alarm call measurements resulted in correct classification of 100% of the vocalizations.  These results parallel findings by Riesing et al. (2003) that the mtDNA difference between the two taxa is on the order of 9%.


In addition, we propose to change the distribution description for B. plagiatus to reflect regular occurrence in southern New Mexico in the breeding season, based on Williams and Krueper (2008), and to reflect occurrence of B. nitidus to 1600 m elevation based on Hilty (2003).




Collectively, all lines of evidence strongly suggest that the current conspecific treatment of B. n. nitidus and B. n. plagiatus does not accurately reflect the extent of differentiation between the two taxa.  We recommend they be considered two species as described below:



Buteo plagiatus (Schlegel). Gray Hawk.


    Asturina plagiata Schlegel, 1862, Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle des Pays-Bas, Revue méthodique et critique (Catalogue) des Collections déposées dans cet Établissement, livr. 1, No. 4 (Sept.), Astures, p.1, note. (Veracruz, Mexico)


  Habitat.—Gallery Forest, Tropical Deciduous Forest, Tropical Lowland Evergreen Forest Edge, River-edge Forest (0-1300 m; Tropical and Subtropical zones).

  Distribution.—Resident from southern Arizona (rarely), southern New Mexico (rarely), western (rarely) and southern Texas south through Middle America (including the Bay Islands, off Honduras) to northwestern Costa Rica (Gulf of Nicoya region).  Northernmost breeding populations in Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas are largely migratory southward in nonbreeding season.


Buteo nitidus (Latham). Gray-lined Hawk.


    Falco nitidus Latham, 1790, Index Ornithol. 1: 41. Based on the “Plumbeous Falcon" Latham, Gen. Synop. Birds (suppl.) 1: 37. (in Cayana = Cayenne.)


   Habitat.—Gallery Forest, Tropical Deciduous Forest, Tropical Lowland Evergreen Forest Edge, River-edge Forest (0-1600 m; Tropical and Subtropical zones).

   Distribution.—Resident from Costa Rica (except northwest), Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Tobago, Trinidad, and the Guianas south, west of the Andes to western Ecuador and east of the Andes to northern Argentina, Paraguay, and southern Brazil.


Literature cited:


American Ornithologists’ Union.  1983.  Checklist of North American Birds.  6th ed.  American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.

American Ornithologists’ Union.  [Online].  2010.  Check-list of North American Birds.  American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D. C. <> (24 February 2010).

Baird, S. F., T. M. Brewer, and R. Ridgway. 1874. A history of North American birds, Volume 3. Little Brown and Company, Boston, MA.

Banks R. C.,  C. Cicero, J. L. Dunn, A. W. Kratter, P. C. Rasmussen, J. V. Remsen Jr., J. D. Rising, and D. Stotz. 2006. Forty-seventh supplement to the American Ornithologists' Union Check-list of North American birds. Auk 123:926-36.

Bierregaard, R. O. 1994. Grey Hawk.  In J. del Hoyo, A. Elliot, and J. Sargatal [eds.], Handbook of the Birds of the World, Volume II.  Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Blake, E. R. 1977. Manual of Neotropical Birds. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Ferguson-Lees, J., and D. A. Christie. 2001. Raptors of the World. Christopher Helm, London.

Friedmann, H. 1950. Birds of North and Middle America. Falconiformes. U.S. National Museum Bulletin, no. 50, part 2.

Hilty, S. L.  2003.  Birds of Venezuela.  Second Edition.  Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Johnson, N. K., and H. J. Peeters. 1963. The systematic position of certain hawks in the genus Buteo. Auk 80:417-446.

Latham, J. 1790. Supplement to the general synopsis of birds. Leigh and Southeby, London.

Miller, W. D., and L. Griscom. 1921. Description of proposed new birds from Central America, with notes on some other little-known forms. American Museum Novitates, no. 25.

Millsap, B. A. 1986. Biosystematics of the Gray Hawk, Buteo nitidus (Latham). M. Sc. thesis, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.

Millsap, B. A., S. H. Seipke, and W. S. Clark.  2011.  The Gray Hawk (Buteo nitidus) is two species.  Condor 113:326-339.

Riesing, M. J., L. Kruckenhauser, A. Gamauf, and E. Haring. 2003. Molecular phylogeny of the genus Buteo (Aves: Accipitridae) based on mitochondrial marker sequences. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 27:328-342.

Schlegel, H. 1862. Asturinae.  Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle des Pays-Bas, Revue Méthodique et Critique des Collections Déposées dans cet Établissement, vol. 2, monograph 6. Leyden, Netherlands.

Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

Stiles, F. G., and A. F. Skutch. 1989. A guide to the birds of Costa Rica. Comstock, Ithaca, NY.

Stresemann, E., and D. Amadon. 1979. Falconiformes.  In E. Mayr and G. W. Cottrell [eds.], Checklist of birds of the World, volume 1.  Museum of Comparative Zoology.

van Rossem, A. J.  1930.  A northwestern race of the Mexican Goshawk.  Condor 32:303-304.

Williams, S. O. III, and D. Krueper.  2008.  The changing status of the Gray Hawk in New Mexico and adjacent areas.  Western Birds 39:202-208.


Brian A. Millsap, Sergio H. Seipke, and William S. Clark, May 2012




Comments from Stiles: “”YES, in the sense that our birds become Gray-lined Hawk (thereby endorsing the decision to split, which is the province of NACC).”


Comments from Pacheco: “YES. Endorsed for the good reasons given in the proposal.”


Comments from Robbins: “YES, long overdue to recognize these as separate species. Gray-lined is an appropriate English name.”


Comments from Jaramillo: “YES – I am ok with the English name Gray-lined Hawk, although it is cumbersome. It does have history though, so let’s keep it.”