It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a buteo!

This is the first blog in a series by banding station attendant Sophia Landis. We hope you enjoy learning more about birds of prey!

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a buteo! But what’s a buteo? Buteos are a scientific grouping of hawks that include numerous, diverse species characterized by broad wings, short tails, and an overall robust build. These traits combine to form a bird perfectly suited for soaring. In fact, buteos will sometimes even soar for great lengths of time together in large groups called “kettles,” particularly during periods of migration.

Have you seen a buteo before? If you’ve ever seen a Red-tailed Hawk, then the answer is yes! The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is likely the most common raptor encountered in North America, given their wide range and stable population. Though plumage varies greatly across the species, there are several identifying traits to make use of when IDing this buteo.

Red-Tailed Hawk, Credit Sophia Landis

Red-Tailed Hawk, Credit Sophia Landis

How can you ID Red-tailed Hawks in the field? A few tips:

    • Red-tailed Hawks are fairly large, ranging from 17 to 22 inches in length with wingspans of 43 to 56 inches. Females are typically larger than males, but plumage is similar in both sexes.
    • Don’t see a bright red tail? Red-tailed Hawks have two ages: adult and juvenile. The iconic reddish tail is sported only by adults. Juvenile Red-tails do not get their adult feathers until after their first molt. If you can’t see a tail, or if the tail you can see is brown and banded, look for other field marks. Always consider location, size and behavior when trying to ID any bird.
    A juvenile RTH has a brown banded tail. Photo credit Sophia Landis

    A juvenile RTHA has a brown banded tail. Photo credit Sophia Landis

    What field marks can you look for outside a red tail? Check for dark patagial marks (the leading edge of the wing), wrist commas, and a bellyband.

    Dave Kester displays RTH field marks: commas, a dark patagium, and a belly band. Photo credit Sophia Landis.

    Dave Kester displays RTH field marks: commas, a dark patagium, and a bellyband. Photo credit Sophia Landis.

    In addition to ID’ing birds, we need to age them. Think about migration: fall migration includes a lot more juveniles than spring migration. What does this tell us about fall migration versus spring migration? What do changes in typical patterns mean? We can’t know – we don’t even know what to ask –  unless we collect and interpret data. In the case of Red-tailed Hawks and many other birds of prey, eye color helps us age birds. Juvenile Red-tails typically have pale yellow eyes that grow dark brown in adulthood.

    A young RTH. Its eye color is changing from light to dark as it ages.

    A young RTHA. Its eye color is changing from light to dark as it ages. Photo credit Sophia Landis.

    An adult RTH. Its eye color is dark.

    An adult RTHA. Its eye color is dark. Photo credit Sophia Landis.

    Several subspecies exist among Red-tails, most notably, the darker Harlan’s and the pale Krider’s. Note that this hawk still has a bellyband, although it is awfully hard to see!

    Krider's Red-tailed Hawk. Photo credit Amy Ries

    Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk. Photo credit Amy Ries

    The second-most common buteo encountered in North America is likely the Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus). This tundra bird spends summers in northern Canada and much of Alaska, choosing to visit a bulk of the lower 48 states in winter months. Like other buteos, Rough-leggeds are hardy hawks with broad wings and soaring stamina. How can you tell if you’re seeing a Rough-legged and not a Red-tail? Let us count the ways!

    1. Rough-leggeds are roughly the same size as Red-tails, ranging from 18-23 inches in length with wingspans of 48 to 56 inches. Though similar in size, Rough-legged Hawks typically have smaller bills and feet than Red-tails. This keeps their bare flesh to a minimum in cooler northern climates.
    2. Why are they called Rough-legged Hawks? They wear feathered pants! Whereas most buteos wear “shorts,” (Amy’s note: and eagles wear pantaloons!) Rough-legged plumage grows much farther down their legs. Again, this helps them stay warm by keeping bare flesh to a minimum.
    3. Look for the white rump! Male and female Rough-leggeds have a white tail base with a darker tip on the tail.
    4. Perching behavior. Where is the hawk perched? If you see a hawk perched on the tip-top branch of a tree surveying the land for prey, it is likely a Rough-legged. Other hawks tend to pick lower perches for hunting.
    A Rough-legged Hawk showing off its petite bill and feet along with its feathered pants. Photo credit J Liguori

    A Rough-legged Hawk showing off its petite bill and feet along with its feathered pants. Photo credit J Liguori

    Plumage varies among Rough-leggeds, with light and dark morphs both occurring within the species. Light adults have a pale underside with a dark belly and wrist patches. Wrist patches are typically more pronounced on females, as the males tend to have darker underwing coverts that can blend in with the wrist patches. They can also appear to be uniformly dark on the underside. Like Red-tails, Rough-legged Hawks begin life with pale yellow eyes that grow darker with age.

    A Rough-legged modeling a dark belly and wrist patches alongside a dark tip of the tail. Photo credit J Liguori)

    A Rough-legged modeling a dark belly and wrist patches alongside a dark tip of the tail. Photo credit J Liguori.

    A dark Rough-legged Hawk. Photo credit J Ligouri

    A dark Rough-legged Hawk. Photo credit J Ligouri.

    Other North American buteo species include the Broad-winged Hawk, the Ferruginous Hawk, the Swainson’s Hawk, the Red-Shouldered Hawk, the Short-tailed Hawk, the Gray Hawk, and the Zone-tailed Hawk. The Common Black-Hawk, the Harris’s Hawk, and the White-tailed Hawk differ a bit taxonomically from the rest of the buteos but are similar enough in habits to be grouped together with them. Curious about identifying birds in flight? We have a blog for that! https://www.raptorresource.org/2019/06/28/identifying-birds-of-prey-in-flight/

    Still aren’t sure what buteo you saw soaring on that thermal the other day? Don’t worry. Even the world’s greatest raptor ID authorities don’t always know for sure what hawk they’re looking at. The important thing is simply enjoying the privilege of seeing wild raptors with your own two eyes!

    For further information on raptor identification, check out The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors by Richard Crossley, Jerry Liguori, and Brian Sullivan; Hawks from Every Angle by Jerry Liguori; and/or Hawks in Flight by Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton. If you have a smartphone, consider downloading the free app, Raptor ID. (Amy’s note: I have Raptor ID and Hawks From Every Angle and both are excellent. I especially like Hawks – it is an excellent guide to learning how to see and ID birds from a distance.)