Photo: Marilyn Grubb/Chipabirdee Images/Audubon Photography Awards

Rough-legged Hawk

Buteo lagopus

Of our soaring Buteo hawks, this is the only one tied to cold climates. It nests in the Arctic, mostly in tundra regions north of the boreal forest; in winter, only a few move farther south than the central United States. Its breeding success on the tundra is often dictated by the population cycles of lemmings, which may provide most of the food for the young. The name "Rough-legged" refers to the feathering that extends down the legs to the base of the toes -- a helpful adaptation for staying warm in frigid weather.
Conservation status Local populations in the Arctic go up and down, largely as a result of rodent populations there. Overall numbers of Rough-legged Hawks are apparently healthy.
Family Hawks and Eagles
Habitat Tundra escarpments, arctic coasts; in winter, open fields, plains, marshes. Spends the winter in open country, including grasslands, coastal prairies and marshes, farmland, dunes. Breeds mostly on tundra, in areas having cliffs for nest sites; some breed along northern edge of coniferous forest zone.
Of our soaring Buteo hawks, this is the only one tied to cold climates. It nests in the Arctic, mostly in tundra regions north of the boreal forest; in winter, only a few move farther south than the central United States. Its breeding success on the tundra is often dictated by the population cycles of lemmings, which may provide most of the food for the young. The name "Rough-legged" refers to the feathering that extends down the legs to the base of the toes -- a helpful adaptation for staying warm in frigid weather.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male, dark morph
  • adult male, dark morph
  • adult male, light morph
  • adult female, light morph
  • adult female, light morph
  • juvenile, light morph
  • adult male
  • adult
  • adult female, dark morph
  • juvenile, dark morph
  • adult female
  • adult female and nestlings
Feeding Behavior

Often hunts by hovering over fields, watching for movement below. Also hunts by watching from a perch, or patrolling low over ground.


Eggs

Usually 3-5, sometimes 2-6. In some areas, supposedly may lay more eggs in years when rodents are abundant. Eggs pale bluish-white, fading to white, blotched with brown and violet. Incubation is by female, roughly 31 days (male may sometimes sit on eggs briefly). During incubation, male brings food for female. Young: Female remains with young at first; male brings food, female feeds it to young. Later, both parents hunt. Age of young at first flight about 5-6 weeks, and they remain with parents for another 3-5 weeks.


Young

Female remains with young at first; male brings food, female feeds it to young. Later, both parents hunt. Age of young at first flight about 5-6 weeks, and they remain with parents for another 3-5 weeks.

Diet

Mostly rodents. On breeding grounds, feeds heavily on lemmings and voles. During high population cycles, lemmings may be more than 80% of summer diet. Also eats many birds. In winter and migration, eats voles, mice, ground squirrels, other small mammals, plus occasionally birds, frogs, insects. May readily feed on carrion in winter.


Nesting

In breeding season, members of pair circle together high in air. One may perform sky dance, alternately flapping to high elevation and then diving steeply. Nest site is usually on a narrow ledge or niche in high cliff. Sometimes nests on slopes, atop large rocks, even on level ground. At edge of forest, may nest in top of tree. Nest is a bulky structure of sticks, bones, debris, lined with grasses and twigs.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Migrates relatively late in fall and early in spring. Numbers appearing south of Canada are quite variable from one winter to the next.

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Migration

Migrates relatively late in fall and early in spring. Numbers appearing south of Canada are quite variable from one winter to the next.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Loud or soft whistles, often in a descending scale.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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