Rough-legged hawk: A visitor from the north

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  • Photo by DON BARTLING 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.

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    Photo by DON BARTLING The Rough-legged Hawk breed in the arctic region in the spring and they nest and raise their young in the summer and fall. In the winter they migrate to open habitats in the U.S. and southern Canada.

  • Photo by DON BARTLING 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.

  • 1

    Photo by DON BARTLING The Rough-legged Hawk breed in the arctic region in the spring and they nest and raise their young in the summer and fall. In the winter they migrate to open habitats in the U.S. and southern Canada.

“Anyone who has ever stopped to watch a hawk in flight will know that this is one of the natural world’s most elegant phenomena.” — John Burnside

Recently I was driving on a “picture safari” in the northern end of the county, around the Copeland Bridge area, when I spotted a raptor sitting on a branch. I stopped to take a picture of this good-sized hawk comfortably perched in the top of a tree beside the Kootenai River. After taking the picture I consulted my “Birds of Idaho Field Guide” by Stan Tekiela and identified it as a rough-legged hawk. They are a common winter resident in Idaho. They nest in the Northwestern Territories in Canada and Alaska.

Rough-legged hawks are fairly large hawks with broad wings and a wingspan that measure from 22 inches to four and a half feet. The wingtips are broad and often swept back slightly from the wrist of the wing, giving a hint of an M shape to the wing. Although the bill is noticeably small for its size, the raptor is larger than an American crow; slightly smaller and less bulky than a red-tailed hawk.

The rough-legged hawks 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.

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 V-shape,

The rough-legged hawk is characterized as having much smaller and weaker feet than the other birds of prey, which means it must hunt smaller prey. They hunt from the air, usually hovering before diving for small rodents such as mice and voles.

The rough-legged hawk breeds in the Arctic region in the spring and they nest and raise their young in the summer and fall. In the winter they migrate to open habitats such as fields, prairies, and deserts in the U.S. and southern Canada.

Rough-legged hawks are active during the day, especially at dawn and dusk. They perch alone on fence posts and telephones poles, fly close to the ground with graceful flaps and glides, or hover facing into the wind while searching for prey. They defend winter territories and may spend the night roosting alone, but may also roost communally in stands of conifers or cottonwoods. Rough-legged hawks are monogamous for at least the duration of the breeding season and pairs have been reported staying together on winter grounds. Their minimal courtship displays mainly involve soaring and calling; in some cases the male repeatedly dives and stalls in mid air. They often share their nesting cliffs with other species including Peregrine falcons and common ravens, although they keep other rough-legged hawks to a distance of a quarter-mile or more.

Discover Boundary County wildlife. Enjoy the outdoors and our visitors!

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