Discovering the Enigmatic Beauty of the Gray-faced Buzzard: A Comprehensive Exploration of Butastur indicus

The Gray-faced Buzzard (Butastur indicus) is an enchanting and fascinating bird of prey found across parts of Asia. With its distinctive facial markings, impressive wingspan, and graceful flight, this species captures the interest of ornithologists and birdwatchers alike. In this comprehensive article, we will thoroughly explore the biology, behavior, distribution, and conservation status of the Gray-faced Buzzard, highlighting why it is such a unique and threatened bird.

Origin and Physical Features

The Gray-faced Buzzard belongs to the genus Butastur, which are medium-sized birds of prey in the family Accipitridae. It was first scientifically described in 1788 by the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin. This species is also known as the Eastern Buzzard-Eagle and Gray-faced Hawk-Eagle.

This raptor gets its common name from its distinctive gray facial disk, which contrasts with its otherwise brownish plumage. Adults have a brownish-gray back and pale underparts, with darker streaks throughout. The crown and nape tend to be more rufous, while the shoulders are rufous-tinged. The eyes are yellow, and the stout, hooked beak is black. The cere and feet are also yellow. When perched, the Gray-faced Buzzard’s wingspan can reach up to 1.2 meters.

The plumage of juveniles is darker and less distinct compared to the adults. As the birds mature starting at about 2-3 years old, their plumage progressively lightens and becomes more heavily streaked. The juvenile’s facial skin is yellowish instead of gray.

This species weighs between 600-1300 grams and measures 45-60 cm in length. Females are up to 25% larger than males. Compared to other buzzards, the Gray-faced Buzzard has a stockier build with broader wings and a short, wide tail.

Distribution and Habitat

The Gray-faced Buzzard has an extensive distribution across eastern and southeastern Asia. Its breeding grounds are centered in northeastern China, the southeastern Russian Far East, and northern Mongolia. After the breeding season, it migrates south to its wintering grounds, which span from northern Indochina down through Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

This species occupies a range of habitats across its breeding and non-breeding distribution, including temperate forests, subtropical broadleaf forests, moist tropical forests, pine-oak forests, and cultivated areas near woodlands. It requires tall trees for nesting and perching sites. In Malaysia specifically, it can be found in lowland dipterocarp forests as well as lower and upper montane forests up to 1500 meters in elevation.

Behavior and Diet

The Gray-faced Buzzard is generally observed alone or in pairs year-round, only congregating in larger groups during migration. It spends much of its time soaring silently high above the forest canopy, riding thermals and updrafts in search of prey. Despite its large size and stocky build, this raptor can be remarkably agile and maneuverable in flight.

It preys predominantly on small mammals like rodents, squirrels, and bats, but also takes a variety of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and large insects. Hunting takes place from either a concealed perch or via a fast diving swoop from flight. Prey is grasped in the raptor’s sizable, sharp talons and then torn apart with its thick, hooked bill.

This opportunistic hunter will also scavenge for carrion and eggs. It has been observed following groups of macaques to feed on prey they flush. Reports indicate the Gray-faced Buzzard may occasionally attack larger prey such as hares and young ungulates.

Breeding and Nesting

The breeding season for the Gray-faced Buzzard occurs from March to August, aligned with increasing daylight hours. Courtship displays begin in February, where the male performs dramatic aerial acrobatics to attract the female’s attention. Sky-dancing and undulating flights are part of elaborate mating rituals.

Once paired, the buzzards construct an expansive platform nest of sticks, twigs, and leafy branches. Nests are built high up in the fork of a tall, mature tree. Often the nest tree stands out above the canopy, providing easy access for the buzzards.

Clutch size is usually two or three dull white eggs with brown blotches. The female incubates the eggs for around 35 days while the male provides food. After hatching, both parents intensely defend the nest and feed the young through brooding and by dropping prey items into the nest. Fledglings leave the nest at around 45-50 days old but remain partially dependent on their parents for up to several months after dispersing.

Threats and Conservation

While still relatively widespread, the Gray-faced Buzzard is suspected to be in population decline across much of its range. Habitat degradation poses one of the largest threats, as deforestation reduces nesting sites and impacts prey availability.

The species is also threatened by hunting, pollution, urbanization, agrochemicals, collisions with powerlines, and disruption of migration routes. It is currently classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. Ongoing conservation efforts emphasize protecting key breeding and foraging habitats and banning hunting of raptors.

In Malaysia, conservationists recommend sustainable land management policies, reforestation of logged areas, and establishment of protected wildlife corridors to restore lost habitat. Ecotourism focused on birdwatching may also benefit the species by giving forests added economic value as habitat for rare species like the Gray-faced Buzzard.

Sightings in Malaysia

Despite population pressures, Malaysia remains an important wintering site for the Gray-faced Buzzard due to its strategic location along major Asian migratory flyways. Key areas for sightings include Fraser’s Hill, Langkawi Island, Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast, and parts of Sabah and Sarawak.

During spring migration from March to April, Gray-faced Buzzards arrive in Malaysia after traveling thousands of kilometers northward from their sub-Himalayan wintering grounds. Here they replenish their energy by preying on rodents and small vertebrates before crossing the South China Sea on their onward journey to breeding areas.

In September and October, southbound migrants can again be observed moving down the Malay Peninsula. Soaring high over the mountains and coastlines avoids geographical barriers and saves energy during this strenuous migratory journey.

Observing the Gray-faced Buzzard gracefully riding thermals or perched vigilantly high above the forest provides an opportunity to appreciate the resilience and beauty of this far-ranging traveler. As development continues to encroach on Asia’s remaining wild spaces, preserving habitat for this threatened migratory raptor in Malaysia and beyond will require increased commitment from conservationists.

Similar Species in Malaysia

The Gray-faced Buzzard shares parts of its Malaysian range with several other birds of prey. The Changeable Hawk-Eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus) is similar in size but has a more prominent crest and lacks the buzzard’s distinctive gray facial markings.

The Japanese Sparrowhawk (Accipiter gularis) is a much smaller, more slender forest-dweller. Male Besra Sparrowhawks (Accipiter virgatus) also share the Gray-faced Buzzard’s rufous shoulders but have different facial patterns.

Juvenile Gray-faced Buzzards share the same brown plumage as the Oriental Honey-buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus). However, the honey-buzzard has a slimmer build, longer neck, and feathers extending along its yellow legs. Keeping an eye out for key identification features helps avoid confusion with these look-alike species.


The Gray-faced Buzzard is an elegant and fascinating bird of prey that captures the imagination of nature enthusiasts across Malaysia and beyond. While facing substantial population threats, this migratory raptor persists as an important component of tropical Asian forests. As we learn more about its biology and document its presence through careful observation, we move closer to ensuring the buzzard’s enduring place in Malaysia’s avian heritage.

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