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Our Winter Hawks: It can be a rough ride for rough-legs 

click to enlarge Our winter visitors from the Arctic Circle, Rough-legged Hawks.
  • Our winter visitors from the Arctic Circle, Rough-legged Hawks.
Our winter visitors from the Arctic Circle, Rough-legged Hawks.
The French name for our winter hawks is Buse pattue, the scientific community recognizes them as Buteo lagopus, while birders know them as Rough-legged Hawks. But, I call them Winter Hawks because that's the only time of the year we see them. The rest of the year they're either nesting up in the Far North, very close to and even on the Arctic Circle, or they're moving back and forth on their long treks.

Rough-legged Hawks are the heaviest of a tribe of soaring hawks known as Buteos (which includes our common red-tailed hawk), a term that comes from the old Latin Butzus which gave us the term, Buzzard. Rough-legged Hawks weigh in at about three to five pounds (males smaller and lighter than females), have a wing-span of over four feet and stay in the air almost effortlessly by using atmospheric lift. They come by their name because of the feathers that come all the way to their toes, a physical trait that helps them keep their eggs warm in cold nights of the Far North.


They are rodent-eaters 'par excellence.' In the Far North their favorite rodent is the lemming, a small mammal that goes through periodic population bursts and has the famous distinction of thinning out their numbers by leaping into the sea. Lemmings reproduce in prodigious numbers, very similar to the way our voles explode in numbers. Contrary to popular opinion, predators do not "control" such population explosions, but rather the other way around. (Disease kills them off.) When there are lots of lemmings, there are lots of rough-legs. In our part of the country, when there are lots of voles, there are lots of owls, hawks and coyotes.

The manner in which rough-legs locate and capture rodents is beyond my comprehension. I have watched them for hours in the meadows of Sunriver, and the hay fields of Fort Rock as they hover over the surface, head down, somehow detecting prey. It can be snowing sideways with six-inches of snow on the ground, wind howling, and there's that rough-leg, hovering in the wind maintaining its position over the field like a helicopter. Suddenly the hawk folds up its wings, drops into the snow and comes up with a gopher or vole. How they do that is beyond me, but one fact is overwhelming, they are doing a great service for hay-farmers: Free rodent extermination.

Several people have mistakenly called rough-legs bald eagles, because of the lighter feathering on the juvenile rough-leg's head and breast, such as seen in the photo above, in flight, the rough-leg is difficult to confuse with red-tails or other buteos. The black feathers on the "thumb" area of the wing are very apparent, as is the white at the base of the tail. And, in winter, a hawk hovering over a snow-covered field with the wind howling at 30 mph is usually a rough-leg-it's their style.

In the North country, where rough-legs raise their families, they build a bulky stick nest on the top of a rock pile, cliff, or if a tree is handy, in the top. In addition to sticks and grass, the nest usually contains bones of large mammals that live around them, like caribou.

When the kids are on the wing, summer is coming to an end and it's time for the rough-legs to begin their long trek southward. However, not all of them come to North America to winter, many will migrate over the Pole and spend their winters in southern Russia and Asia.

Unfortunately, some of the rough-legs that come to visit us here in the Northwest never see their homeland again-they are shot by those infernal idiots with guns that have to kill something. Rehabbers in the US end up with gun-shot hawks (and eagles), some damaged by shotgun pellets, others with smashed wing bones so severely damaged by high-powered rifles that the birds have to be euthanized.

If you watch hawks soaring by right now you will see our resident red-tails arriving home, and an occasional rough-leg making its way back to the Far North. By the end of March they will have all left our area, but next Fall, around the end of October, they will be back and will take up that way of life that provides a great savings to hay farmers, and mystify me as they drop into 6-inches of snow and gobble up gophers.

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