Bird GuideHawks and EaglesRough-legged Hawk

At a Glance

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.
Hawk-like Birds, Hawks and Eagles
Low Concern
Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Saltwater Wetlands, Tundra and Boreal Habitats
Alaska and The North, California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Flap/Glide, Hovering, Soaring

Range & Identification

Migration & Range Maps

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


19-24" (48-61 cm). W. 4' 4 (1.3 m). In flight, tail shows white at base, dark banding at tip; blackish patch at wrist of wing contrasts with paler flight feathers. Body plumage quite variable; typical juvenile shows black belly contrasting with streaked buffy chest. Dark-morph birds are hard to identify when perched, but show distinct pattern on wings and tail in flight.
About the size of a Heron, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Black, Brown, Tan, White
Wing Shape
Fingered, Long, Rounded
Tail Shape
Rounded, Square-tipped

Songs and Calls

Loud or soft whistles, often in a descending scale.
Call Pattern
Falling, Simple
Call Type


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.



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.


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.

Feeding Behavior

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


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.


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.

Climate Vulnerability

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.

Climate Map

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Rough-legged Hawk. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.

Climate Threats Facing the Rough-legged Hawk

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.

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