Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk

Details About The Rough-legged Hawk

  • General Information

    Rough-legged Hawks are similar in size to Red-tailed Hawks. Their legs are feathered giving them the appearance of “rough” legs. Individuals vary in color from very dark to light, but all have a very dark band across their chest. In flight, conspicuous black patches show on the underside of their wrists. They also show a wide white band at the base of the tail. Their small feet and small beaks are adaptations to living in arctic climates. The male, female, and juvenile birds all have slightly different plumage that differs between light and dark morph as well.

    Latin Name: Buteo lagopus
    Class: Aves
    Order: Falconiformes
    Family: Accipitridae
    Length: 18-24 inches
    Weight: 1.5-3.2 pounds
    Wingspan: 47-54 inches
    Common Name: Roughleg, Rough-Legged Buzzard, Mouse Hawk
    Etymology: buteo (Latin) - "a kind of hawk"; lagopus (Latin) - "hare-footed"

  • Flight, Voice & Habitat

    Rough-legged Hawks often will hunt from the air by soaring, but will also use an alternating flapping - gliding flight. They do less of the flap-and-glide flights as other buteos, and instead have fairly steady wing beats. They soar with wings in a dihedral (V-shape), and wings and tail fully spread, but they do not seem as reliant on thermals as other buteos. They have been known to "kite" into the wind when hunting. These hawks will attack live prey on the ground by diving straight down from above or from a slight diagonal.

    The Rough-legged Hawk has an alarm call that is similar to the Red-tailed Hawk, a descending kee-eer as though high pressure steam is escaping. Both pairs have been heard to give whistling noises during courtship, and the female will often produce a clucking sound. They are not very vocal when not in breeding season except for the alarm call.

    Rough-legged Hawks are requently found in open, treeless areas, such as tundra. They can also be found hunting in agricultural fields, grasslands, large river deltas, shrub-steppes, marshlands and bogs.

  • Nesting

    This species will build stick nests in the tops of trees and on cliff ledges. Their tendency to nest in the highest possible site gives them a good view of the surrounding area. They will often try to return to the same nest and build on top, but in the arctic there is a lot of competition for good nesting sites with Peregrines, Gyrfalcons and ravens. Ground nests are vulnerable to predation (Snowy Owls, foxes, bears, wolves). They are fierce defenders of the nest and are monogamous at least through breeding season. Males will sometimes perform “sky dance” courtship displays, diving down repeatedly. The female lays 2-7 eggs, depending on availability of prey. In very lean years, they may not breed at all. Eggs are white with blotches of reds, browns, and dark purples. Incubation lasts 28-31 days with the majority of incubation done by the female. Young fledge at 39-43 days and will disperse around 4 weeks after fledging.

  • Distribution

    The Rough-legged Hawk's breeding range extends through the Arctic tundra from Alaska through Canada. They are found in northern Europe and Asia as well. They are complete migrants and will be seen in open areas in the northern US and southern Canada in winter. In winter, they will often be found in concentrated numbers near a good hunting area. The dark morph is more common in eastern North America; it is rare in the west and not found in Eurasia at all.

  • Food

    They will often hover-hunt, but will perch hunt also, mainly in winter. Their main source of food is small rodents, such as mice, and lemmings. 70-90% of their diet consists of small mammals. Bird species (ptarmigan, waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds) supplement their diet in the summer. They have also been known to take some larger mammals such as Arctic ground squirrels and rabbits. Rough-legged Hawks have been known to steal prey from other birds such as other Rough-legged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, American Kestrels, and ravens. They are opportunists and will feed off carrion as well. They are considered to be both diurnal and crepuscular hunters.

  • Current Resident Birds

    Rough-legged Hawk Aletta (pronounced Ah-LEE-tah) came to us from a raptor center in Elmwood, Nebraska, as Rough-legged Hawks aren't native to this area. Rough-legged Hawks prefer colder climates, as is evident by some noticible physical adaptations such as a smaller beak, smaller feet, and densly feathered legs. Aletta means “winged one” in Latin and “noble” in Dutch.

  • Fun Facts & Other Interesting Information

    The Rough-legged Hawk spends the summer capturing lemmings on the arctic tundra, tending a cliffside nest under a sun that never sets. Will lemmings really follow each other over a cliff? Only this hawk knows for sure.

    The Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus), is also called the Rough-legged Hawk. It is found in Arctic and Subarctic regions of North America and Eurasia during the breeding season and migrates south for the winter. It was also known as the Rough-legged Falcon in such works as John James Audubon's The Birds of America.