ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK – (Buteo lagopus)

The Rough-legged Hawk (also called Rough-legged Buzzard) owes its name to the fact that its legs are covered with feathers, a feature allowing it to survive in its breeding range in the Arctic. It has a varied plumage that comes into two main phases, a light form and a dark form (see photo below for the latter). To further complicate matters for identification, males and females have different plumages, as well as juveniles.

This raptor is slightly larger than the Red-tailed Hawk, and measures about 50 cm (20 in.) long. As with other birds of prey, females are larger and heavier than males. The plumage is mainly brown on top with lighter spots. The amounts of brown vary among the morphs. Many have a large dark band across the lower chest. Some have brown streaks on the head. Some have a dark tail band. Often the wings are darker on top than under.

The bird’s Latin name ‘Buteo’ means ‘hawk’, and ‘lagopus’ means ‘hare-footed’, again referring to its feather-covered legs and feet.

The rough-legged hawk will build its nest in trees, but also on cliffs.

When hunting prey, it will hover above the ground. In its wintering range this hawk can be observed in open country, where its diet may include small rodents, birds, mammals or even amphibians such as frogs.

The rough-legged hawk does not breed on PEI and its occurrence on the island varies depending on the seasons – occasional in the spring, accidental in the summer, and uncommon or irruptive in the fall and winter. Its overall range is circumpolar in the summer. In the winter, it can be observed in most of the contiguous USA, the Atlantic provinces and southern Quebec and Ontario, and in the mid sections of Europe and Asia.

The population of this hawk appears stable, but it can fluctuate depending on the availability of its main prey in the Arctic, the lemming.

Rough-legged Hawk - Dec. 3, 2014 - Joanne Dunphy
Rough-legged Hawk – Dec. 3, 2014 – Joanne Dunphy
Rough-legged Hawk - Niagara region, ON - Sept. 8, 2007 - Rob Hanson
Rough-legged Hawk – Niagara region, ON – Sept. 8, 2007 – Rob Hanson