My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

The rough-legged buzzard, also called the rough-legged hawk, is a medium-large bird of prey. 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 traditionally also known as the rough-legged falcon in such works as John James Audubon’s The Birds of America.

Nests are typically located on cliffs, bluffs or in trees. Clutch sizes are variable with food availability but 3–5 eggs are usually laid. These hawks hunt over open land, feeding primarily on small mammals. Along with the kestrels, kites and osprey, this is one of the few birds of prey to hover regularly, which can aid in identifying this species.

This fairly large raptorial species is 46–60 cm (18–24 in) with wingspan ranging from 120 to 153 cm (47 to 60 in). Individuals can weigh from 600 to 1,660 g (1.32 to 3.66 lb) with females typically being larger and heavier than males. Among standard measurements in adults, the wing chord is 37.2–48.3 cm (14.6–19.0 in), the tail is 18.6–25.5 cm (7.3–10.0 in), culmen is 3.2–4.5 cm (1.3–1.8 in) and the tarsus is 5.8–7.8 cm (2.3–3.1 in). The plumage is predominantly brown in colour and often shows a high degree of speckling. A wide variety of plumage patterns are exhibited in light vs. dark morphs, males vs. females and adults vs. juveniles. Extensive field experience is required to distinguish between certain plumage variations. Compared to its more common nearctic and palearctic cousins, the common buzzard (Buteo buteo) and the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), it is slightly larger, though may be outweighed by the latter.

Its feet are feathered to the toes (hence its scientific name, lagopus, meaning “hare-footed”) as an adaptation to its arctic home range. Lagopus is derived from Ancient Greek lago (λαγως), meaning “hare”, and pous (πους), meaning “foot”. Its talons are relatively small, reflecting their preferred choice of prey. A broad brown chestband is present in most plumages and a square dark carpal patch contrasting with the white under-wing is an easily identifiable characteristic in light morph individuals. The species exhibits a wide variety of plumage patterns including light and dark morphs.

Distinguishing characteristics in all plumages include long white tail feathers with one or more dark subterminal bands. The wing tips are long enough to reach or extend past the tail when the animal is perched. The common buzzard can be similar-looking, with a similar long-tailed shape and can be notoriously variable in plumage. The rough-legged is longer-winged and more eagle-like in appearance. The red-tailed hawk is chunkier-looking and differs in its darker head, broader, shorter wings, barring on the wings and the tail, dark leading edge to the wings (rather than black wrist patch) and has no white base to the tail. The ferruginous hawk is larger, with a bigger, more prominent bill and has a whitish comma at the wrist and all-pale tail.

It is the only hawk of its size (other than the very different-looking Osprey) to regularly hover over one spot, by beating its wings quickly.

The rough-legged hawk breeds in tundra and taiga habitats of North America and Eurasia between the latitudes of 61 and 76° N. Rough-legged hawks occurring in North America migrate to the central United States for the winter, while Eurasian individuals migrate to southern Europe and Asia. It is the only member of its diverse genus found in both of the Northern continents and has a complete circumpolar distribution. During these winter months, from November to March, preferred habitats include marshes, prairies and agricultural regions where rodent prey is most abundant.

Breeding sites are usually located in areas with plenty of unforested, open ground. Depending on snow conditions, migrants arrive at breeding grounds during April and May. Home ranges vary with food supply but are commonly reported to be 10–15 km2 (3.9–5.8 sq mi) during the winter, but little is known about home ranges during the breeding season. Although frequently attacked in skirmishes by other highly territorial birds such as gyrfalcons and skuas, the rough-legged buzzard is not strongly territorial.

This species is carnivorous, typically feeding on small mammals, which make up 62–98% of its diet. Lemmings and voles are the major prey items of this species, seasonally comprising up to 80–90% of their prey, but this varies with seasonal availability. Some evidence suggests that these hawks may be able to see vole scent marks which are only visible in the ultraviolet range, allowing them to cue in on prey. The rough-legged hawk will also supplement its diet with mice, rats, gerbils, pikas and insects. Besides mammals, birds are the second most favored type of prey for Rough-legs. Most avian prey species are small passerines such as snow buntings, Lapland longspur and American tree sparrow. However, they will also prey on birds slightly larger than the passerines typically targeted, especially ptarmigan, as well as waterfowl, shorebirds and short-eared owls. They usually target bird prey which are young and inexperienced, with relatively large avian prey often being snatched in their fledging stage. When small mammals are scarce, the rough-legged hawk will also feed on larger, medium-sized mammals including prairie dogs, ground squirrels, muskrats, weasels and even adult black-tailed jackrabbits of approximately twice their own weight. During winter, shrub-steppe habitats seem to encourage a strong dependence on rabbit prey. In developed areas of England, wintering rough-legged buzzards have been recorded preying most regularly on relatively large prey such as common wood pigeon and invasive European rabbits.

This avian predator hunts opportunistically, occasionally supplementing their diet with carrion, but focusing primarily on the most locally abundant small vertebrates. Rough-legged hawks will steal prey from other individuals of the same species as well as other species such as the red-tailed hawk, hen harrier, American kestrel and common raven. Prey sizes typically range from 6.5–2,587 g (0.23–91.25 oz) and adults require 80–120 g (2.8–4.2 oz) of food daily, around the body mass of the largest species of vole or lemming although most species weigh a bit less. These raptors hunt during the daytime. Like most Buteos, rough-legged buzzards have been reported both still-hunting (watching for prey from a perch and then stooping) and watching for prey while in flight. Unlike most other large raptors, they may engage in hovering flight above the ground while search for prey.

Sexual maturity is reached at about two years old. Breeding generally occurs during May but is variable depending upon dates of arrival at breeding grounds. The rough-legged hawk is thought to be monogamous, mating with a single individual for multiple years. No evidence currently suggest otherwise.

Nests are built soon after arrival to breeding grounds and require 3–4 weeks to complete. Twigs, sedges and old feathers are used as building materials. Nests are 60–90 cm (24–35 in) in diameter and 25–60 cm (9.8–23.6 in) in height. Cliff ledges and rocky outcroppings are preferred nesting sites. Females can lay 1–7 eggs but will typically lay 3–5. Average egg size is 56.4 mm (2.22 in) in length by 44.7 mm (1.76 in) in width. Minimum incubation period is 31 days, provided almost exclusively by the female. The male feeds the female during this incubation period. After hatching, young require 4–6 weeks before fledging the nest. Fledglings depend on parents to provide food for 2–4 weeks after leaving the nest.

Rough-legged buzzards that survive to adulthood can live to an age of 19 years in the wild. One female being kept in an Idaho zoo is over 25 years of age. However, perhaps a majority of individuals in the wild do not survive past their first two years of life. The threats faced by young Rough-legs can include starvation when prey is not numerous, freezing when Northern climes are particularly harsh during brooding, destruction by humans, and predation by various animals. The chances of survival increase incrementally both when they reach the fledging stage and when they can start hunting for themselves. Death of flying immatures and adults are often the result of human activity, including collisions with powerlines, buildings and vehicles, incidental ingestion of poison or lead from prey or illegal hunting and trapping.

On to my photos:

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus

Rough-legged Hawk, Buteo lagopus


This is number 177 in my photo life list, only 173 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!



18 responses

  1. What a splendid bird.

    February 23, 2015 at 3:22 am

    • Thank you Susan!

      February 23, 2015 at 5:28 am

  2. Lovely action shots! What a shame many of these birds don’t live past two years in the wild though. Thanks for these greatly informative posts. 🙂

    February 23, 2015 at 6:13 am

    • Thanks Jane! It may sound harsh, but it’s probably a good thing that so many of these birds die young, otherwise, they would eat rodents and birds faster than the prey species could reproduce.

      February 23, 2015 at 8:31 pm

  3. Wonderful shots as always. I am amazed to read that they can possibly see scent markings. Their silhouette is very much like our Buzzard (Buteo buteo) with the short neck and short, wide tail.

    February 23, 2015 at 6:58 am

    • Thanks Clare! They are very similar to your Buzzards, the two species are closely related.

      February 23, 2015 at 8:32 pm

  4. Now that red tailed hawks have moved into the neighborhood I hope other kinds like this one will follow.

    February 23, 2015 at 7:27 am

    • Thanks Allen! I think that these are just winter visitors here, but I’d keep one eye out for them for a while yet. If you see a large bird hovering over land, it’s probably one of these.

      February 23, 2015 at 8:34 pm

  5. Love seeing those talons extended as it comes in near the ground. That’s got to be a terrifying sight if you’re a mouse.

    February 23, 2015 at 9:03 am

    • Thanks Judy! I don’t think that you have to be a mouse to be terrified if one of these approached with its talons extended. 😉

      February 23, 2015 at 8:35 pm

  6. Eric kept spotting these guys on our trip, but I never did catch a shot.

    February 23, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    • Thanks, maybe one of these days you’ll get one.

      February 23, 2015 at 8:42 pm

      • Ahhh… but I did get a few shots of a Phainopepla (sadly not very good ones) – one I’d never even heard of, much less know how to pronounce! 🙂

        February 23, 2015 at 8:46 pm

  7. TPJ

    Great shots with a story line always catch my attention. Thank you.

    February 24, 2015 at 11:34 am

    • Thank you very much!

      February 24, 2015 at 8:33 pm

  8. Oh no! Not more hawks!!! (deep breath) OK, I’m better now. 😉 Love those action shots! What an impressive raptor–not that I want to see one in person anytime soon but, yeah, impressive! 🙂

    February 26, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    • Thanks Lori! I promise, no more raptors for a while, how about a warbler, then a duck?

      February 26, 2015 at 9:27 pm

      • U got it!!!

        February 27, 2015 at 1:49 pm