For the Birds Radio Program: Rough-legged Hawk

Original Air Date: Jan. 23, 1995

An unexpected delight this winter is the large number of Rough-legged Hawks overwintering up here. 3:54

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This winter’s mild temperatures and shallow snow cover have had one lovely effect: Rough-legged Hawks are all over the Northland. Rough-legs are common here in October and early November, especially along Lake Superior, but snow usually drives them further south by December. In the far north they eat lemmings, mice, and snowshoe hares. Here they eat mostly mice and so must retreat when snow cover hides their food. We usually don’t see any in January, but this auspicious year I’ve been counting at least 3 or 4 rough-legs each time my family drives the 37-mild stretch of U.S. Highway 13 between Superior and Port Wing, Wisconsin.

The rough-leg breeds from the Aleutian Islands and mainland Alaska down through central Canada. During lemming population peaks, rough-legs can reproduce like the rabbits they also eat, but they’re not as abundant as they should be. They’ve been persecuted since white settlers arrived in America, despite the fact that their diet, almost exclusively small mammals destructive to agricultural interests, makes them unusually beneficial.

Rough-legs are the kind of big soaring hawks also called buteos, with wings and tail a bit longer than the typical buteo. Most of them have a thick black belly band making perching birds easy to identify. In flight, the black wrist marks and white tail base are good characteristics on light-colored birds but worthless on dark morph birds. Their scientific name, Buteo lagopus, means “rabbit-footed hawk,” reflecting the feathering down to the feet, but few birders ever actually notice this characteristic.

Rough-legged Hawks have few enemies besides human beings ignorant of federal and state laws that prohibit shooting or trapping them. Few carnivores could subdue a rough-leg even if they could catch it. One of the most poignant stories I’ve read about a rough-leg and its natural enemies was written by two hunters who shot one in 1928. The bird was missing a leg and foot, apparently by having once been caught in a pole trap. They wrote:

The curious and pathetic point was that the head and neck, that is, all such parts as could not be reached by the bill, were literally swarming with lice, sometimes to the extent of dozens to the square centimeter. These had devoured all the softer, concealed parts of the head and neck feathers, so that while the rest of the body, which was quite free from vermin, was … densely coated with white under-plumage … the bare skin of the infested areas was merely shingled over by the tips of the contour feathers … The hawk had been able to strike its prey with one foot, but was being literally tormented to death, and deprived of its protection against the bitter cold, by the tragic circumstance of being unable to scratch its head!

Fortunately, most of the hawks visiting the Northland this year are in fine fettle. Although we see two or three hundred Rough-legs passing over Hawk Ridge every fall, it never seems quite enough. This magnificent bird carries something of the wild, desolate lands whit it calls home on its long, powerful wings. Usually its passage through the Northland is all too brief. Enjoy this unexpected but very welcome visitor while you can.