Rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus)

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Rough-legged hawk in flight
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST
CONCERN

Top facts

  • A long-living species, the rough-legged hawk can live for over 18 years.
  • The rough-legged hawk is named for its feathered legs.
  • The rough-legged hawk is one of three American hawks to have feathered legs.
  • The nest of the rough-legged hawk occasionally contains caribou bones.
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Rough-legged hawk fact file

Rough-legged hawk description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderFalconiformes
FamilyAccipitridae
GenusButeo (1)

The rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus) gains its common name from its distinctive feathered legs (4). The appearance of this species is highly variable, and the plumage of each individual bird can differ in pattern and colour intensity. Some individuals may be mostly dark and are known as dark morphs, whereas others are lighter and are called light morphs. The plumage is usually grey-brown on the upperparts and pale underneath, with a variable amount of pale streaking throughout (3).

The grey-brown upperparts of the male and female light morph are heavily mottled with pale markings, while the underparts are also mottled heavily, with a pale band extending across the lower breast. The dark morphs of the male and female are mostly dark grey-brown, but with pale areas on the wings and head. Identifying the sex of a rough-legged hawk is difficult due to some individuals possessing the plumage of the opposite sex. The female is usually larger than the male and has less barring on its tail (3).

The tail of the rough-legged hawk is broad and long with a dark tip and a white base. The wings are long and broad, and have pale flight feathers with dark tips (4). The rough-legged hawk’s dark horn-coloured bill and bright yellow toes and feet are proportionately small for the overall size of this bird (3).

Similarly to the adult, the juvenile rough-legged hawk has a highly variable appearance, but usually has paler plumage than the adult, a browner tail and paler tips to the flight feathers (2).

The call of the rough-legged hawk is a long, drawn-out ‘kaaaar(4).

There are four recognised subspecies of rough-legged hawk: Buteo lagopus lagopus, Buteo lagopus menzbieri, Buteo lagopus kamtschatkensis and Buteo lagopus sanctijohannis. These subspecies all differ in distribution, size and colouration (2) (3).

Also known as
Roughleg, Rough-legged Buzzard.
Size
Length: 50 - 60 cm (2)
Wingspan: 120 - 150 cm (2)
Male weight: 600 - 1,377 g (2)
Female weight: 783 - 1,660 g (2)
Hatchling weight: 34.5 - 45 g (3)
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Rough-legged hawk biology

The preferred prey species of the rough-legged hawk are voles and lemmings (2) (3), although as an opportunistic carnivorous predator (3) it will also take small birds, fish, insects and carrion when its preferred prey is scarce (2) (3). It hunts by hovering in the air above open areas (4), as well as from an elevated perch, to which it will return to consume its prey (3) (4). It may also forage around rubbish dumps in certain areas (2).

A migratory species, the rough-legged hawk migrates from its northern breeding grounds between mid-September and early November, and overwinters in the southern areas of its range. Northward migration from the wintering grounds usually occurs between late April and late May (2). Rough-legged hawks usually migrate during the day, and may form large flocks, small groups or fly alone (3).

The male and female rough-legged hawk form a monogamous pair bond for the breeding season, which may be formed during winter before the pair migrates. The pair bond is formed during a courtship ritual which involves calling and flying in circles high in the air. The bond is usually only maintained for one breeding season (3).

Immediately after arrival on the breeding grounds, nest construction begins and usually takes between three and four weeks to complete (3). After the male rough-legged hawk has selected the nest site, it collects most of the nesting material and takes it to the female who constructs the nest (3). The nest itself is usually built on a cliff or rocky outcrop and is a large, bowl-shaped structure built primarily from sticks, with a lining of grass, sedges and twigs (2) (3) (4). As well as sticks, the outer structure of some nests may contain the bones of reindeer (Rangifer terandus) (3) (4). Between May and June (2), a single clutch of between one and seven eggs is laid by the female (4), with the eggs laid at two-day intervals (2). The eggs are highly variable in their appearance and may be green, blue or off-white with blotches and spots on their surface (3) (4). Incubation is performed solely by the female (2) (3), who is fed by the male until the eggs begin to hatch after between 28 and 31 days (3). Between 35 and 45 days after hatching, the young begin to fledge the nest, with males usually fledging the nest around a week before females (2).

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Rough-legged hawk range

The breeding range of the rough-legged hawk extends across the full width of the Arctic, from northern Canada in the west to China in the east. During winter, this species is found further south, from the United States in the west to Korea and Japan in the east (1) (3) (4).

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Rough-legged hawk habitat

During its breeding season, the rough-legged hawk is found in open country around treeless taiga and tundra (2) (3) (4). In winter, it migrates southward over boreal forest (3) into open areas (4), including prairies, steppes, open fields, marshlands, bogs and dunes (3). During winter individuals may also be found in cultivated areas (2).

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Rough-legged hawk status

The rough-legged hawk is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Rough-legged hawk threats

The rough-legged hawk may be at risk from hunting, as well as mortality from road traffic accidents (3). There are not currently known to be any other threats to this species.

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Rough-legged hawk conservation

The rough-legged hawk is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (5) and is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (6).

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Find out more

More information on the rough-legged hawk:

More information on bird conservation in North America:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Boreal forest
The sub-Arctic forest of the high northern latitudes that surrounds the North Pole and is mainly composed of coniferous trees.
Carnivorous
Feeding on flesh.
Carrion
The flesh of a dead animal.
Flight feathers
The feathers at the end of the wing, involved in flight.
Incubation
The act of incubating eggs; that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
Monogamous
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
Morph
One of two or more distinct types of a given species, often distinct colour forms, which occur in the same population at the same time (that is, are not geographical or seasonal variations).
Prairie
An extensive area of flat or rolling, predominantly treeless grassland, especially the large tract or plain of central North America.
Steppe
A vast grassland plain, characterised by few trees and low rainfall.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
Taiga
The sub-Arctic forest of the high northern latitudes that surrounds the pole and is mainly composed of coniferous trees.
Tundra
Treeless, grassy plains characteristic of Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. They are very cold and have little rainfall.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2013)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World - New World Vultures To Guineafowl. Vol. 2. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Bechard, M.J. and Swem, T.R. (2002) Rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/641/
  4. Cornell Lab of Ornithology - Rough-legged hawk (November, 2013)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Rough-legged_Hawk/
  5. CITES (November, 2013)
    http://www.cites.org/
  6. Migratory Bird Treaty Act (November, 2013)
    http://www.fws.gov/laws/lawsdigest/migtrea.html
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Image credit

Rough-legged hawk in flight  
Rough-legged hawk in flight

© Markus Varesvuo / naturepl.com

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