Living Bird Magazine
Rough-legged HawkButeo lagopus
- ORDER: Accipitriformes
- FAMILY: Accipitridae
The Rough-legged Hawk spends the summer capturing lemmings on the arctic tundra, tending a cliffside nest under a sun that never sets. Winter is the time to see this large, open-country hawk in southern Canada and the U.S., where it may be perched on a pole or hovering over a marsh or pasture on the hunt for small rodents. Found globally across northern latitudes, this species occurs in both light and dark forms.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Because Rough-legged Hawks breed in the arctic, your best bet for finding one near you is to wait until winter. Keep an eye out in open country, looking especially for a large, chunky raptor hovering while facing into the wind-fsimilar in style to the much smaller and daintier American Kestrel and White-tailed Kite. Rough-legged Hawks perch on fence posts and utility poles, as well as on the ground or in the slenderest treetops, where other large raptors rarely chance sitting. Watch for them on winter road trips, as their bold tail and underwing pattern, as well as black belly patches, can often be clearly seen even at highway speeds.
- Busardo Calzado (Spanish)
- Buse pattue (French)
- Cool Facts
- The name "Rough-legged" Hawk refers to the feathered legs. The Rough-legged Hawk, the Ferruginous Hawk, and the Golden Eagle are the only American raptors to have legs feathered all the way to the toes.
- Nonbreeding adults eat about a quarter-pound of food daily, or a tenth of their body mass - that’s about 5 small mammals. Nestlings start feeding themselves (swallowing lemmings whole) at about 16 days old. It’s estimated that a brood of 2 nestlings requires 26 pounds of food during the 40 days between hatching to fledging.
- The Rough-legged Hawk’s cliffside nest, a bulky mass of sticks, sometimes contains caribou bones. Nesting pairs need a lot of space: usually only a single pair will nest on a quarter-mile-long cliff. However, the pair may nest within 100 feet of Gyrfalcons, Peregrine Falcons, or Common Ravens.
- Even though they breed under continuous sunlight in the Arctic, Rough-legged Hawks do take a break between about 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., with less activity and vocalizing.
- Rough-legged Hawks have been shown to hunt more in areas experimentally treated with vole urine than in control areas. They may be able to see this waste (as American Kestrels can), which is visible in ultraviolet light, in order to find patches of abundant prey.
- Despite a strong affinity for rodents, Rough-legged Hawks were perceived as a threat to poultry up until the early 20th century. Since they are approachable birds that spend their time in open spaces, they were vulnerable to hunting by farmers. It’s now illegal to shoot raptors and most other wild birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
- The oldest Rough-legged Hawk on record, a female, was at least 17 years, 9 months old when found in Illinois in 1979.