It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a buteo! But what is a buteo? Buteos are a scientific grouping of hawks characterized by broad wings, short tails, and an overall robust build, which combine to form a bird perfectly suited for soaring. Buteos will sometimes 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 seen a Red-tailed Hawk, then the answer is yes! The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is the most common raptor encountered in North America, with a wide range and stable population.
Red-Tailed Hawk, Credit Sophia Landis
ID’ing Red-tailed Hawks in the field
Although their plumage may vary greatly from bird to bird and region to region, all Red-tailed Hawks share a few traits.
- 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.
Aging Red-tailed Hawks in the field
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 RTHA. Its eye color is changing from light to dark as it ages. Photo credit Sophia Landis.
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. The hawk below still has a bellyband, although it is awfully hard to see!
Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk. Photo credit Amy Ries
ID’ing Rough-legged Hawks in the field
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, and winters in the lower 48 states. How can you tell if you’re seeing a Rough-legged Hawk and not a Red-tailed Hawk? Let us count the ways!
- Rough-legged Hawks are roughly the same size as Red-tailed Hawks, 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.
- 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. This helps them to stay warm by keeping bare flesh to a minimum.
- Look for the white rump! Male and female Rough-legged Hawks have a white tail base with a darker tip on the tail.
- 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 Hawk. 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
Plumage varies among Rough-legged Hawks, 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-tailed Hawks, 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 dark Rough-legged Hawk. Photo credit J Ligouri.
Other North American buteo species
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. And you can always check Cornell’s website for helpful photos, ID tips, and life information: https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home. (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.)