- 18.9–22 in
- 24.4–48.2 oz
- Larger than a Cooper’s Hawk; smaller than a Ferruginous Hawk.
- Buse de Swainson (French)
- Aguilucho Langostero, Gavilán Longostero, Aguililla de Swainson (Spanish)
- The Swainson’s Hawk initially suffered from a case of mistaken identity, when a specimen collected in Canada in 1827 and illustrated by William Swainson was confused with the common buzzard (Buteo buteo) of Europe. A nephew of Emperor Napoleon eventually corrected the error: in 1832, while working in Philadelphia, French biologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte identified the hawk as a new species and named it after the original illustrator—although he based his own description on a drawing by John James Audubon.
- Swainson’s Hawk feed their chicks the usual “three r’s” of the North American buteo diet: rodents, rabbits, and reptiles. But when they’re not breeding, the adults switch to a diet made up almost exclusively of insects, especially grasshoppers and dragonflies.
- Groups of soaring or migrating hawks are called “kettles.” When it comes to forming kettles, Swainson’s Hawks are overachievers: they form flocks numbering in the tens of thousands, often mixing with Turkey Vultures, Broad-winged Hawks, and Mississippi Kites to create a virtual river of migrating birds. Their daytime migrations create a much-anticipated spectacle for birders who in fall and spring form their own flocks at well-known migratory points in the southern U.S., Mexico, and Central America to watch the birds stream by.
- The oldest known Swainson’s Hawk was at least 26 years, 1 month old. It was banded in 1986 in California, then recaptured and rereleased during banding operations, also in California, in 2012.
Swainson’s Hawks favor open habitats for foraging. Although much of their native prairie and grassland habitat has been converted to crop and grazing land, these hawks have adjusted well to agricultural settings. You’ll find them searching for prey in hay and alfalfa fields, pastures, grain crops, and row crops, or perched atop adjacent fence posts and overhead sprinkler systems. They rely on scattered stands of trees near agricultural fields and grasslands for nesting sites.
Swainson’s Hawks eat mainly mammals and insects. Mammals make up the bulk of the diet during breeding season, when adults prey on ground squirrels, gophers, mice, voles, and rabbits. These opportunistic feeders also eat bats, snakes, lizards, and birds. Regional diets can vary significantly: for instance, in one region near Alberta, Burrowing Owls were a major part of the diet; in Utah, rabbits accounted for more than half the prey taken. When they’re not breeding, Swainson’s Hawks rely almost exclusively on insect prey, especially crickets, grasshoppers, and dragonflies, often catching and eating them on the wing. They also eat butterflies, moths, and beetles.
- Clutch Size
- 1–5 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1 broods
- Egg Length
- 2–2.4 in
- Egg Width
- 1.7–1.9 in
- Incubation Period
- 34–35 days
- Nestling Period
- 17–22 days
- Egg Description
- Off-white, often blotched with dark reddish brown or pale purple.
- Condition at Hatching
- Newly hatched chicks are naked and helpless, and cannot raise their heads. The tiny chicks weigh just under 1.5 ounces (39.4 g).
Although both members of a Swainson’s Hawk pair work on building a new nest, the male brings most of the materials to construct the loose bundle of sticks, twigs, and debris items such as rope and wire. Nest construction can take up to 2 weeks, with the finished nest reaching 2 feet in diameter and over a foot high. The inner bowl measures up to 8 inches around and 2.75 inches deep. Both partners line the bowl with fresh, leafy twigs, grass, hay, weed stalks, or bark; the lining can include cow dung or wool. Swainson’s Hawks may reuse a nest from a previous year, or refurbish a crow, raven, or magpie nest.
Male Swainson’s Hawks choose the nest site, usually near the top of a solitary tree or in a small grove of trees along a stream. Pairs often build nests in shelterbelts or other trees located near agricultural fields and pastures where they feed. Nesting trees include willow, black locust, oak, aspen, cottonwood, and conifers. In the southern part of their range Swainson’s Hawks will build nests as little as three feet off the ground in mesquite bushes. On occasion they’ll nest on a power pole or transmission tower.
Swainson’s Hawks often forage on foot, running after insects and small mammals with wings partly outstretched. They also hover like White-tailed Kites as they scan hayfields and grasslands for prey, and soar low over prairies and pastures when hunting. The hawks have adjusted well to agricultural operations that scare up insects, often catching and eating them on the wing. They’ll also perch on overhead sprinkler rigs or fence posts, and then pounce on rodents fleeing irrigation water. Courting partners perform a “sky dance”: they soar in circles high above the nest site, with the male making steep dives and recoveries before rejoining the female. Breeding birds are aggressive around the nest site and chase off intruders, including Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Turkey Vultures, and Golden Eagles. Pairs will also dislodge other raptors, including Red-tailed Hawks and White-tailed Kites reusing Swainson’s Hawk nests. In late summer as migration nears, Swainson’s Hawks “flock up” by the thousands to move to their South American wintering grounds. A migrating bird waits for the air to warm, then soars on the rising air currents with wings and tail spread wide. At the top of the thermal the hawk folds its primary feathers back, closes its tails and soars south, using gravity to make distance as it searches for another thermal.
Swainson’s Hawk numbers have been stable overall, with a slight increase between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 580,000, with 73% breeding in the U.S., 20% in Canada, and 6% in Mexico. The species rates a 12 out of 20 on the Conservation Concern Score. Swainson's Hawk is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. Historic declines of this species occurred when farmers shot these and other hawks in the belief that they harmed livestock, but shooting hawks (and most other native bird species) is now illegal. More recent declines are due to a loss of prey and nesting sites. Continued consolidation of small farms (which offer shelterbelts of trees suitable for nest sites) into larger agribusiness operations eliminates nesting habitat and threatens breeding populations. The conversion of pastureland to soybean fields in Argentina has led to a loss of winter foraging habitat.
Certain pesticides used in Argentina to control grasshoppers (known as monocrotophos and dimethoat) killed thousands of wintering Swainson’s Hawks in the mid 1990s. Since then, an educational campaign and the banning of these pesticides have apparently been successful in reducing mortality, although other pesticides may pose a threat.
- Bechard, M.J., C.S. Houston, J.H. Sarasola, and A.S. England. 2010. Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni). In The Birds of North America Online, No. 265 (A. Poole, Ed.). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.
- Snyder, H. 2001. Hawks and allies. In The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, C. Elphic, J.B. Dunning, Jr., and D.A. Sibley (eds.). Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
- North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee. 2014. State of the Birds 2014 Report. U.S. Department of Interior, Washington, DC.
- Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
- Sauer, J.R., J.E. Hines, J.E. Fallon, K.L. Pardieck, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr., and W.A. Link. 2016. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015, Version 01.30.2015. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.
- Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2016. Longevity records of North American Birds.
Long-distance migrant. Starting in late August and September, nearly the whole population of Swainson’s Hawks migrates from North America to Argentina, a roundtrip of more than 12,000 miles for the northernmost breeders. The migration path narrows as the birds move south and north, creating phenomenal hawk-watching opportunities at known migratory points in Texas, Mexico, and Central America.
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.