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Rough-legged Hawk


IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

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.

Keys to identification Help

Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Rough-legged Hawks are fairly large hawks with broad wings that, compared to other Buteo hawks, are fairly long and narrow. The tail is also longer than in many other buteos. The wingtips are broad and often swept back slightly from the wrist, giving a hint of an M shape to the wing. The bill is fairly small.

  • Color Pattern

    These are boldly patterned, dark-brown hawks with tails that are dark at the tip and pale at the base. Like many hawks they occur in light and dark morphs. Light morphs have pale underwings with dark patches at the bend of the wing. Females have pale heads and dark belly patches; on males the pattern is similar but more mottled. Dark morphs are mostly dark brown but usually show pale trailing edges to the underwing.

  • Behavior

    When hunting, Rough-legged Hawks often face into the wind and hover, scanning the ground below for small mammal prey. They often perch on fence posts and utility poles, and sometimes on slender branches at the very top of a tree. They soar with their wings raised in a slight dihedral, or V-shape.

  • Habitat

    These hawks breed in the arctic. In winter they migrate to open habitats such as fields, prairies, deserts, and airports in the U.S. and southern Canada.

Range Map Help

Rough-legged Hawk Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

Most other buteos such as Red-tailed Hawk and Ferruginous Hawk lack the Rough-legged’s pale-based, dark-tipped tail. Red-tailed Hawk, the most common buteo in most of North America, has broader, shorter wings and lacks the Rough-legged’s bold black belly and bend-of-wing patches. Ferruginous Hawks have longer wings with more noticeably pointed wingtips. Light morphs are very pale beneath, lacking the bold patterns of Rough-legged Hawk. Swainson’s Hawks have white underwings with a dark trailing edge, as well as a dark head and chest and a pale belly—virtually the reverse pattern from a Rough-legged Hawk. Dark-morph buteos can be very difficult to distinguish; fine points of Size & Shape are the best clues to use. Northern Harriers have even longer, narrower wings than Rough-legged Hawks. They have a conspicuous pale rump patch rather than a pale base of the tail.

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—similar 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.

You Might Also Like

eBird Occurrence Maps, Rough-legged Hawk.

Raptors of Winter, All About Birds, January 12, 2015.

Raptors and Rat Poison, Living Bird, Summer 2015.

ID Tips for Raptor-Watching Season: Use Tail and Wing Shape, Living Bird, Autumn 2016.



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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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