While cross-country skiing in the field behind our property, I have frequently been treated to the majestic sight of a soaring rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus). During summer, they can be regularly seen in their flight patterns over farm country and can be easily mistaken for a red-tailed hawk, golden eagle or even a turkey vulture. Unless the distinctive markings can be seen (which often depends on the light), identification can be tricky. Both the common and scientific names refer to the fact that this hawk’s legs are feathered all the way down to its toes. The only other known birds to sport this feature are the ferruginous hawk and the golden eagle. The rough-legged hawk is 19 inches in length and has a wingspan of 52 inches. The beak is hooked (handy for ripping flesh) and it has long, broad, rounded wings. In flight, the underside of the wings shows large black patches at the wrists. The broad tail is white at the base with a dark terminal band. Adult hawks occur in both dark and light phases of colour.
Durable relationships Rough-legged hawks are monogamous; pairs have been observed together over a period of many years. They breed in the Arctic tundra and taiga regions of Canada and Europe. There is one brood annually with a clutch of 2-7 eggs, depending on the availability of food for the nesting pair. Nests are built on the edges of cliffs or in the tops of trees. Some have been found to have the bones of caribou amongst the nesting sticks. The hawk’s diet consists of small mammals, fresh roadkill, rodents, and large insects. It hovers over its prey like a kestrel, and then plummets toward it feet first. Puppies and kittens beware! The hawks love the open country and are frequently seen riding the air currents over the agricultural fields of Middlesex County. Fortunately, this species is not listed with any particular concern either in Canada or the United States. At one time, however, enormous numbers were shot in the U.S. because of the tame behaviour of the species. Numbers have increased in recent years as a result of more stringent hunting guidelines and regulations. The rough-legged hawk is also vulnerable while feeding on roadkill on local roads and highways. Just recently I was disappointed to see a red-tailed hawk that had succumbed to that same fate on county road 81.
Recent sightings Keep your wits about you as you travel throughout the region. The bald eagle is definitely making a strong comeback. If you think you are seeing a large hawk, look again more carefully and you just may see the distinctive white head and tail of the bald eagle. I have been treated to several such sights near Ailsa Craig over the past few months.