Rough-legged hawk

The rough-legged hawk is a bird of the far north around the world. It’s a bird of northern Canada and Alaska in the Americas and of northern Europe and Asia. It is slightly smaller than the red-tailed hawk, common in Indiana.

The rough-legged hawk is a bird of the far north around the world. It’s a bird of northern Canada and Alaska in the Americas and of northern Europe and Asia. It’s an open country bird, a bird of the tundra, of grasslands where it preys on meadow mice, voles, lemmings and rabbits.

The rough-legged hawk is not a migrant but does fly south when the snow gets deep enough that meadow mice and other small animals that live on and in the ground are hidden beneath the snow, protected from rough-legged hawks and snowy owls, aerial predators, by a blanket of white. This makes it an irregular winter visitor to much of Canada and to the United States, except Alaska.

A rough-legged hawk is slightly smaller than a red-tailed hawk, the common broad winged hawk of most of the United States and southern Canada. Adults are dark brown streaked with white on the head, back and upper side of the wings. The under side of the wings is dark brown and white and the tail is brown banded with white.

To me, in northern Indiana, a rough-legged hawk is a rare winter visitor. But is it really rare, a dark colored hawk, the shape and approximately the size of a red-tailed hawk? How often is one seen and mistaken for a red-tailed hawk when it’s perched on a power pole or a fence post, especially when seen by someone passing in a car, at or near dawn or dusk? I wonder how many times I’ve mistaken a rough-legged hawk for a red-tail.

I’ve not seen a rough-legged hawk this winter. But my older daughter has. She was out walking with the dogs along the road by our house a few days ago and saw a rough-leg perched on a power pole by the road.

I don’t remember the last time I saw a rough-legged hawk. Not this winter, nor last. Not for several winters. Nor have I heard of anybody seeing a rough-legged hawks until my older daughter saw that one recently. I don’t recall even thinking about a rough-legged hawk. If I had, I would have concluded that with global warming and less than usual snowfall, rough-legs were staying in the north and not likely to be seen in northern Indiana or any place else south of the tree line in northern Canada.

A power pole or a fence post must be a luxury for a rough-leg. They hunt by flying, circling over the ground, then dropping on their prey. They nest on the ground, too. What else can they do? There are no power poles or fence posts nor are there any trees in the tundra, the normal range of rough-legged hawks.

In winter rough-legged hawks are normally in small flocks. These flocks usually wander until they find a field to their liking, then stay there, often for several weeks. I’ve seen flocks of rough-legs in winter, but never a loner. I looked for the one my daughter saw, but I didn’t see it nor did I see a flock.

Why was that rough-legged hawk by itself? And why was it in northern Indiana in January? The weather to the north has not been especially bad. There has been no exceptionally heavy snow.

Dark-eyed juncos and tree sparrows are coming to my bird feeders are coming to my feeders daily as they do every winter but not in unusual numbers as they do when there is severe weather to the north. I’ve not heard of any snowy owls or other rough-legged hawks in Indiana, as there are when there is severe weather, particularly heavy snow, to the north.

‘Tis an enigma.

Neil Case may be reached at

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