For the Birds Radio Program: Broad-winged Hawk

Original Air Date: Sept. 9, 1987

Sort of recast from 1986-09-24

Audio missing


Re-taped for 1987-09-09

(Recording of a Broad-winged Hawk)

One of the prettiest bird songs of all is the call of the Broad-winged Hawk. This is a gentle, tame hawk–unless you happen to be a snake, mouse, or frog. If you’ve ever seen a chunky crow-sized hawk sitting on a telephone wire as you drove through the north woods, it was probably a Broad-wing– especially if it let you walk right up for a closer look.

Like many species of hawks, Broad-wings are devoted mates and parents, belying their family’s macho image. It takes a pair of Broad-wings almost three weeks to build the nest each spring, and they’re fussy about its appearance. They usually brighten the nest with sprigs of green leaves which they keep fresh throughout the nesting period. No one is exactly sure why they do this–it was perhaps the evolutionary origin of florists and interior decorators.

Broad-wings eat mainly insects, like June bugs, dragonflies, and grasshoppers, and snakes, frogs, toads, and small mammals. When young songbirds are learning to fly, they’re sometimes taken too, though the Broad-wing’s flapping flight is too clumsy for bird catching as a rule.

Broad-wings belong to a group of hawks called buteos–in Britain they’re called buzzards. This group of hawks has long, wide wings and short, wide tails, ideal for effortlessly floating on updrafts and thermal air currents. Most buteos, like the Red-tailed Hawk, make lazy circles in the sky as they hunt in open country. But the Broad-wing, which lives in woods, is unusual for a buteo–it watches for its prey from a perch and drops down to catch it. It does show its buteo inheritance in its migratory behavior–migrating Broad-wings collect in huge flocks, called kettles. Hundreds of them often swirl about on a thermal, floating higher and higher until they stream out on a current in search of another thermal. This method helps them to conserve energy on their long flight. They cruise through the Northland in tremendous numbers. On Sept. 13, 1986, Molly Evans, Hawk Ridge’s official counter, tallied 16,468 Broad- wings, and that was far from the best day ever. On Sept. 15, 1978, fully 31,831 Broad-wings were carefully counted. The swarming kettles are impossible to even estimate well– experienced hawk counters wait until a kettle starts to stream out before counting the birds in more manageable lines.

Although the large numbers of Broad-wings that gather here make it seem as if this species must be invulnerable, it isn’t. On its South American wintering grounds, the Broad-wing is shot at and exposed to DDT and other poisons. The consistent monitoring of this bird at places like Hawk Ridge ensures that if the numbers do drop dangerously, people will notice in time to save this noble and sweet-natured bird of prey.

(Recording of a Broad-winged Hawk) This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been For the Birds.