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Swainson's Hawk

Buteo swainsoni ORDER: ACCIPITRIFORMES FAMILY: ACCIPITRIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A classic species of the open country of the Great Plains and the West, Swainson’s Hawks soar on narrow wings or perch on fence posts and irrigation spouts. These elegant gray, white, and brown hawks hunt rodents in flight, wings held in a shallow V, or even run after insects on the ground. In fall, they take off for Argentine wintering grounds—one of the longest migrations of any American raptor—forming flocks of hundreds or thousands as they travel.

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Keys to identification Help

Hawks
Hawks
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Swainson’s Hawks are buteos, meaning they are large hawks with fairly broad wings and short tails. However, Swainson’s Hawks are less hefty than many other buteos. They are slimmer and longer-winged, with their wings typically held in a shallow V when soaring.

  • Color Pattern

    Though they can be quite variable, most Swainson’s Hawks are light-bellied birds with a dark or reddish-brown chest and brown or gray upperparts. They have distinctive underwings with white wing linings that contrast strongly with blackish flight feathers. Most males have gray heads; females tend to have brown heads. Dark individuals also occur; these vary from reddish to nearly all black, with reduced contrast on the underwings.

  • Behavior

    Swainson’s Hawks are social raptors, nearly always being found in groups outside the breeding season. You may see them soaring in a kettle of migrating birds; strung out on the ground, fence posts, and utility poles when foraging on grasshoppers; or chasing swarms of dragonflies on winter quarters in Argentina.

  • Habitat

    These hawks spend summers in the wide-open spaces of the American West. They are the typical nesting buteo of grasslands, but also use sage flats and even swaths of agriculture intermixed with native habitat. Nests are placed in trees, often in the only tree visible for miles.

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Swainson
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult (Light morph)

    Swainson's Hawk

    Adult (Light morph)
    • Slender-bodied raptor of open grasslands and prairie
    • Often perches prominently on fence-posts or utility poles
    • Long wings
    • Light morphs show white forehead and throat, contrasting with chocolate brown head
    • © Kurt Kirchmeier, Saskatchewan, Canada, July 2011
  • Adult (Light morph)

    Swainson's Hawk

    Adult (Light morph)
    • Distinctive in flight with long, pointed wings and tail
    • Dark flight feathers contrast with white belly and under-wings
    • Dark brown head with white on forehead and chin
    • © Raymond Lee, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, May 2010
  • Juvenile

    Swainson's Hawk

    Juvenile
    • Long-winged and slender-bodied buteo
    • Juveniles often seen on ground in open areas, hunting grasshoppers
    • Juveniles mostly mottled brown overall with thicker dark patch on upper breast
    • Pale face
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, Firebaugh, California, August 2009
  • Adult (Intermediate morph)

    Swainson's Hawk

    Adult (Intermediate morph)
    • Usually perches prominently on utility poles or fence-posts overlooking open prairie/grasslands
    • White forehead and chin
    • Intermediate morph shows more extensive rufous chest patch, and dark barring on belly
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, Lovelock, Nevada, April 2010
  • Immature (Intermediate morph)

    Swainson's Hawk

    Immature (Intermediate morph)
    • Long, pointed wings and long tail
    • Dark flight feathers
    • Intermediate morph shows more extensive dark patterning on breast and under-wings
    • Thicker dark band near tip of tail
    • © Kurt Kirchmeier, Saskatchewan, Canada, July 2011
  • Adult (Dark morph)

    Swainson's Hawk

    Adult (Dark morph)
    • Distinctive slender profile with long wings and taill
    • Dark morph adults show solid, dark-chocolate plumage overall
    • Often seen on prominent perches overlooking open areas
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, Firebaugh, California, April 2009

Similar Species

  • Adult

    White-tailed Hawk

    Adult
    • Similar to Swainson's Hawk in flight
    • Bright white under-parts with no dark patch on chest
    • White under-tail with single black band near tip
    • Dark trailing edge of wing narrower than on Swainson's Hawk
    • © Greg Page, Paul Rushing Park, Texas, October 2010
  • Immature

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Immature
    • Similar in size to Swainson's Hawk but stockier and more compact
    • Shorted, more rounded wings
    • Dark "belly band" on immatures
    • Dark marks on leading edge of wings
    • © ashockenberry, Ontario, Canada, September 2008
  • Adult male (Light morph)

    Rough-legged Hawk

    Adult male (Light morph)
    • Similar to Swainson's Hawk in flight but even lankier, with long, narrow wings
    • Very narrow, dark trailing edge on wings
    • Dark patches at "wrists"
    • Pale, frosty head, and bright white under-tail with single black band near tip
    • © Cameron Rognan, St. George, Utah, December 2007
  • Adult (Light morph)

    Ferruginous Hawk

    Adult (Light morph)
    • Larger and bulkier than Swainson's Hawk
    • Paler rusty/rufous above, with rufous-barred "stockings"
    • Plain, snowy white breast with no dark patch
    • Pale, whitish patches near tips of upper-wings
    • © Conrad Tan, November 2012

Similar Species

Light-plumaged adult Swainson’s Hawks are distinctive because of the contrast on their chest and belly and also on their underwings. Darker birds and immatures can be tricky. Light adult Red-tailed Hawks have shorter, wider wings without the strong light-to-dark wing contrast and dark trailing edge of Swainson’s Hawk. Light Ferruginous Hawks typically are entirely light from breast to belly, and the wings are white from below. Rough-legged Hawks (even light adult males) have an obvious black-and-white tail pattern and their legs are feathered to the toes. Dark Red-tailed, Ferruginous, and Rough-legged hawks typically have dark wing linings and paler flight feathers, where dark-morph Swainson’s show either the opposite pattern or, rarely, entirely dark underwings. Immature Red-tailed, Ferruginous, and Rough-legged hawks also sport a translucent panel in the outer wing, unlike Swainson’s Hawk. The White-tailed Hawk of coastal Texas has an obviously white tail with a distinct black band. Immature White-taileds are mostly dark, but usually have a white patch on the chest, unlike Swainson’s.

Regional Differences

Nearly all Swainson’s Hawks breeding in the eastern half of the range (east of the Rocky Mountains) are light in appearance. Darker-plumaged birds are more common in the West, although still in the minority, accounting for upwards of 10 percent of individuals.

Find This Bird

Your best bet for finding Swainson’s Hawks is during summer in open country west of the Mississippi River. They are perch conspicuously on utility poles, fence posts, and isolated trees in areas that otherwise lack such elevated perches. In perch-deprived areas, look for them standing on the ground in grassland or tilled agricultural fields. No other buteo species can be found in large numbers in such situations. During migration, they don’t move along ridgelines or lakeshores nearly as much as do other raptors. Instead, look for large flocks of soaring raptors over open country within their range, especially in April and September. If these are not Turkey Vultures, they are almost certainly Swainson's Hawks. At a few select migration spots including Hazel Bazemore Park (Corpus Christi, Texas) and a few sites in Middle America (Veracruz, Mexico; Kèköldie, Costa Rica; and Panama City, Panama) you can reliably see very large numbers of them passing south in fall. You can also see fairly large numbers in spring at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge hawkwatch in south Texas.

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