Rough-Legged Hawk (Rough-Legged Buzzard)

Buteo lagopus

Last updated: October 20, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
Image Credit Eivor Kuchta/Shutterstock.com

Its scientific name, lagopus, is Ancient Greek for “hare” and “foot,” referring to its feathered feet and toes.

Rough-Legged Hawk (Rough-Legged Buzzard) Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Accipitriformes
Family
Accipitridae
Genus
Buteo
Scientific Name
Buteo lagopus

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Rough-Legged Hawk (Rough-Legged Buzzard) Conservation Status

Rough-Legged Hawk (Rough-Legged Buzzard) Locations

Rough-Legged Hawk (Rough-Legged Buzzard) Locations

Rough-Legged Hawk (Rough-Legged Buzzard) Facts

Prey
Small rodents and passerine birds
Main Prey
Lemmings, voles
Name Of Young
Eyas
Group Behavior
  • Mainly solitary
Fun Fact
Its scientific name, lagopus, is Ancient Greek for “hare” and “foot,” referring to its feathered feet and toes.
Estimated Population Size
350,000 to 800,000
Biggest Threat
collisions, accidental capture from bear traps, pesticides
Most Distinctive Feature
Bold patterns, M-shaped wings
Distinctive Feature
Feathers legs and feet
Wingspan
47 to 60 inches
Incubation Period
31 days
Age Of Independence
8 to 10 weeks
Age Of Fledgling
4 to 6 weeks
Habitat
Arctic tundra and coasts, open grasslands
Predators
Birds of prey, Arctic foxes, brown bears, wolverines, skuas
Diet
Carnivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
Favorite Food
Small rodents
Type
Bird
Common Name
Rough-legged hawk
Special Features
Small talons
Number Of Species
2
Location
North America, Europe, Asia
Nesting Location
Exposed cliffsides, high trees, buildings
Migratory
1

Rough-Legged Hawk (Rough-Legged Buzzard) Physical Characteristics

Color
  • White
  • Dark Brown
Skin Type
Feathers
Lifespan
7.5 years
Weight
1.32 to 3.66 pounds
Length
18 to 24 inches
Age of Sexual Maturity
Two years

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Their habitats include tundra and Arctic coasts during the breeding season.

Summary

The rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus), also known as the rough-legged buzzard, lives on three continents across 50 countries. It inhabits the Arctic tundra during spring and summer and open grasslands and prairies during the winter. This hawk has unusual adaptations, such as feathered feet and rapid wing beats, allowing it to hover in place. Learn all the interesting facts about the rough-legged hawk, including where it lives, what it eats, and how it behaves.

5 Amazing Rough-legged Hawk Facts

  • The rough-legged hawk builds its nest using Arctic plants and caribou bones, lining it with feathers and fur.
  • Its scientific name, lagopus, is Ancient Greek for “hare” and “foot,” referring to its feathered feet and toes.
  • They have loud alarm calls that sound like cat “mews.”
  • They are the only hawk species that can hover in one spot by rapidly beating their wings.
  • Their favorite food is rodents and small birds. They will also steal food from other raptors.

Where to Find the Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged hawks live in North America, Europe, and Asia in over 50 countries, including Canada, The United States, France, Germany, and China. They breed in Arctic and Subarctic regions and migrate south for the winter, as far as the Central United States, Southern Europe, and Asia. You can find them as far south as Texas in the United States, and they are typically absent from the Southeast. Their habitats include tundra and Arctic coasts during the breeding season. But they spend their winters in open country like grasslands, coastal prairies, marshes, farmlands, and dunes.

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Rough-legged Hawk Nest

Males choose exposed cliffsides, high trees, or buildings for their nest sites. Males collect the materials, while females spend three to four weeks building a bulky platform consisting of Arctic plants and caribou bones. She lines the insides with grass, feathers, and fur. This species may reuse the same nest for several breeding seasons.

Scientific Name

The rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus) is from the Accipitriformes order in the Accipitridae family, encompassing small to large birds with strongly hooked bills. The Buteo genus comprises the hawks in North America and the buzzards in Europe. Its specific name, lagopus, is Ancient Greek for “hare” and “foot,” reflecting its feathered feet. 

There are three recognized subspecies of rough-legged hawks:

  • B. l. Lagopus: Northern Europe and Asia
  • B. l. Sanctijohannis: North America
  • B. l. Kamtchatkensis: North Siberia to Pacific North America

Size, Appearance, & Behavior

Rough-Legged Hawk
The rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus), also known as the rough-legged buzzard, lives on three continents across 50 countries.

1,024 × 713 pixels, file size: 355 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg – License

The rough-legged hawk is a relatively large bird of prey, measuring 18 to 24 inches long and weighing 1.32 to 3.66 pounds, with a 47 to 60-inch wingspan. They have long, narrow wings (compared to other hawks), which creates a slight M-shape mid-flight. These hawks are dark brown with bold patterns, and their tails are dark at the tips and pale at the base. They occur in light and dark morphs, similar to other hawk species. Their evolutionary adaptations consist of small talons to catch their prey of choice and feathered feet and toes to withstand the cold Arctic regions. 

This species is primarily solitary but forms monogamous pair bonds during the breeding season and may migrate alone or with small groups. Rough-legged hawks have an unusual feature: they beat their wings rapidly and hover over one spot while hunting. However, their exact speed is unknown. Their alarm calls are loud and cat-like, lasting several seconds and repeating. And their typical calls are whistles with a descending scale. Both can be made while perched or in flight.

Migration Pattern and Timing

They are medium-distance migrants who breed in the tundra and boreal forests in the northern regions of North America and Eurasia. Populations in North America migrate to Southern Canada and the Central United States during winter. And those in Eurasia migrate to Southern Europe and Asia.

Diet

The rough-legged hawk is a carnivore and an opportunistic hunter. Small mammals make up 62 to 98% of their diet.

What Does the Rough-legged Hawk Eat?

Their diet primarily consists of small rodents, such as lemmings, voles, mice, rats, gerbils, shrews, and squirrels. Birds are their second favorite type of prey, mainly passerines like buntings and sparrows. They occasionally prey on larger birds, such as waterfowl and short-eared owls. They may resort to eating larger mammals like jackrabbits and prairie dogs when food is scarce. Rough-legged hawks are opportunistic and aggressive hunters, often stealing prey from their own species and other raptors. They hunt during the day and either watch prey from a stoop before stooping or catch it mid-flight. Unlike most birds of prey, these hawks hover above the ground while searching for food.

Predators, Threats, and Conservation Status

The IUCN lists the rough-legged hawk as LC or “least concern.” Due to its extensive range and very large, stable population, this species does not meet “threatened” status thresholds. However, this species faces several threats. Historically, it was significantly threatened by shooting and trapping but is no longer a severe hazard. Its other threats include collisions, accidental capture from bear traps, pesticides, and the effects of climate change like fluctuating weather and increased rainfall. Weather changes can cause unsuccessful reproduction and collapsed nests.

What Eats the Rough-legged Hawk?

Several animals prey on rough-legged hawk nests, such as Arctic foxes, brown bears, wolverines, ravens, skuas, and snowy owls. Adult hawks have very few natural predators but may die in conflicts with other raptors like eagles, falcons, owls, and other hawks. Like other birds of prey, Rough-legged hawks are defensive of their territories. They give alarm calls and will drive off intruders to protect their nests and areas.

Reproduction, Young, and Molting

Rough-legged hawks reach sexual maturity at two years and form monogamous pair bonds, mating with the same partner for several years, perhaps for life. They begin looking for their nesting territories during the fall, and breeding occurs during May. Females lay an average of three to five eggs and incubate them for 31 days, while the males bring food. The young fledge the nest four to six weeks after hatching but depend on their parents for food for another two to four weeks. Their average lifespan is 7.5 years, but they can live up to 18 years.

Population

The global rough-legged hawk population is estimated to number 350,000 to 800,000 mature individuals. Its European and North American populations are currently stable and have been since the 1970s. However, groups in some areas may fluctuate depending on the availability of small mammals as a food source.

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About the Author

Niccoy is a professional writer and content creator focusing on nature, wildlife, food, and travel. She graduated Kappa Beta Delta from Florida State College with a business degree before realizing writing was her true passion. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and enjoys hiking, reading, and cooking!

Rough-Legged Hawk (Rough-Legged Buzzard) FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are rough-legged hawks rare?

Rough-legged hawks have a very large population but are rare to spot due to their Arctic habitats.

How can you tell a rough-legged hawk?

They have long, narrow wings (compared to other hawks), which creates a slight M-shape mid-flight. These hawks are dark brown with bold patterns, and their tails are dark at the tips and pale at the base.

Why is it called rough-legged hawk?

They have feathered legs and feet down to their toes. This is uncommon for hawk species.

Where do rough-legged hawks live?

Rough-legged hawks live in North America, Europe, and Asia in over 50 countries, including Canada, The United States, France, Germany, and China. Their habitats include Arctic tundra and open grasslands.

How big do rough-legged hawks get?

The rough-legged hawk is a relatively large bird of prey, measuring 18 to 24 inches long and weighing 1.32 to 3.66 pounds, with a 47 to 60-inch wingspan.

What do rough-legged hawks sound like?

Their alarm calls are loud and cat-like, lasting several seconds and repeating. And their typical calls are whistles with a descending scale.

Do rough-legged hawks migrate?

They are medium-distance migrants who breed in the tundra and boreal forests in the northern regions of North America and Eurasia. The migrate south to Southern Canada, the Central United States, Southern Europe, and Asia.

What do rough-legged hawks eat?

Their diet primarily consists of small rodents, such as lemmings, voles, mice, rats, gerbils, shrews, and squirrels. Birds are their second favorite type of prey, mainly passerines like buntings and sparrows.

What threatens the rough-legged hawk?

Its threats include hunting, collisions, accidental capture from bear traps, pesticides, and the effects of climate change.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Red List / BirdLife International, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22695973/202640529
  2. JSTOR / The Condor, Available here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1364791
  3. Oxford Academic / The Auk / Andréanne Beardsell, Gilles Gauthier, Jean-François Therrien, Joël Bêty, Available here: https://academic.oup.com/auk/article/133/4/718/5149267

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