Rough-legged Hawk head on

Columbus Audubon thanks Laura Dornan and the Canton Audubon Society for their kind permission to republish this article.

The Rough-leg has no opinion why grass grows, but he is well-aware that snow melts in order that hawks may again catch mice. He comes down out of the Arctic in hope of thaws, for to him a thaw means freedom from want and fear”
Aldo Leopold, January Thaw—A Sand County Almanac, 1949
Rough-legged Hawk Perched - Photo Tom Koerner
Rough-legged Hawk – Photo Tom Koerner

An apt description for why this Arctic breeder comes down to the large grasslands, hay-fields, and reclaimed strip mines of eastern Ohio every winter. They begin to arrive in Ohio the third week of October through the first week of November. According to the 2022 Edition of the Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Ohio, they are considered uncommon winter residents, meaning they are likely to be present in appropriate habitat but less likely to be seen, smaller numbers found and extra effort may be needed. This extra effort may mean a trip to The Wilds, Killdeer Plains WA, or Funk Bottoms WA, to name a few.

A trip to any of these areas in January or February is almost certain to result in the sight of a Rough-legged Hawk sitting at the very tip-top of a tree in an erect posture (make sure it is not a crow!). Hopefully you will also see one hunting—a pure delight to watch. His flight is slow and graceful, as he quarters the ground like a Northern Harrier. He may hover in the air, turning his head from side to side, then suddenly partially close his wings and drop down to capture his prey. In Ohio, this is likely to be a mouse or vole. In the Arctic, it will be mice, lemmings, pocket gophers and large insects.

Rough-legged Hawl Soaring - Photo Tom Koerner
Rough-legged Hawk soaring – Photo Tom Koerner

When first learning the plumage of this hawk, one may be overwhelmed. There are several variations, including 3 different color morphs: very light, buffy or intermediate, & black or melanistic. Adults and juvenile plumages differ and a slight difference occurs in males and females. But all these variations will be less confusing if you concentrate on the basic field marks: a white rump when viewed from above, a large black band across the belly, black patches near the wrist, blackwing tips. In Ohio, the light color morphs outnumber the black by about 10 to 1. Legs and feet are feathered to maintain warmth in the frigid Arctic temperatures.

When these hawks return to their breeding grounds on the open tundra, they will build nests on cliffs and rock outcrops. They are large and bulky, 24-36 inches across, and 20-24 inches deep, made from small sticks and twigs. Average clutch sizes are 3- 5 young; when prey is scarce, 2 or 3 young.

Resources: Natural Areas and Preserves Association, newsletter Autumn 2021; Birds of Ohio, by James S. McCormac

Rough-legged Hawk - Photo Mick Thompson
Rough-legged Hawk – Photo Mick Thompson