Head West to See a Ferruginous Hawk

Updated: Oct. 10, 2023

Learn what a ferruginous hawk looks like, what foods are on the menu, and where to find this uncommon bird of prey in North America.

What Does a Ferruginous Hawk Look Like?

ferruginous hawkCourtesy Sandra Short Bull
Ferruginous hawk in Badlands National Park

The ferruginous hawk is the largest buteo found in the United States, measuring 23 inches long with a 56-inch wingspan. The word “ferruginous” means containing iron or rusty in color. Adults are mostly pale with reddish-brown colored shoulders and leg feathers.

To identify them, look for a wide head and long wings that are broader at the base and narrow toward the tips.

“The ferruginous hawk has been somewhat elusive to photograph in Badlands National Park. I have often seen this mighty raptor soaring in the cloudless blue skies above the ragged butte tops. I would also see it sitting on the top of a weathered butte far from me. So I was pleased as I saw this regal hawk (above) perched on a fence post. What a wonderful end to a beautiful day in South Dakota,” says reader Sandra Short Bull.

Discover more types of hawks you should know.

Similar Birds

This raptor is so large, you might mistake it for an eagle. Some light colored red-tailed hawks have similar markings but they are slightly smaller overall and lack leg feathers. Dark-morph ferruginous hawks may also resemble rough-legged hawks. A useful field mark is lack of dark striping on the tail.

Look for Swainson’s hawks in the summer skies.

Range and Habitat

Ferruginous Hawkmallardg500/Getty Images
Ferruginous hawk in flight

These birds of prey are uncommon and mostly solitary, pairing up for breeding. Look for them in arid Western grasslands and open farm fields. They perch on posts and poles and may sit on the ground.

Their range stretches northward into Montana, the Dakotas, Idaho, Washington and Oregon during the summer breeding season. They winter throughout the southwestern states and into Mexico.

Check out essential hawk identification tips for birders.


276558706 1 Cathie Katz Bnb Bypc 2021Courtesy Cathie Katz
Juvenile Ferruginous hawk

Ferruginous hawks hunt small mammals such as gophers, ground squirrels, rabbits and prairie dogs, diving down from the air or a nearby perch, or waiting in front of a burrow to snag an unsuspecting rodent.

“Driving through the Rocky Mountain Arsenal wildlife refuge last December. I spotted this juvenile ferruginous hawk sitting on a fencepost. A number of photographers had pulled their cars over, but he was absolutely fine with all the fuss. I think it was because he had just finished a good meal (notice the red stain on his chest). I took this photo with my Canon 70D with a Tamron 70 – 300 lens,” says reader Cathie Katz.

ID Challenge: Cooper’s hawk vs sharp-shinned hawk.

Nesting Habits

Ferruginous Hawks on Nesttwildlife/Getty Images
Ferruginous hawk nestlings 

These birds build large, bulky nests in isolated trees or on rocky outcrops and cliffs. They may reuse the same nesting site year after year. A typical clutch includes two to four light colored eggs, which hatch in a little more than a month. Fledglings leave the nest around 40 to 5o days later.

Learn how to identify a broad-winged hawk.

Call and Sounds

Listen for a distinctive keeyah sound when adult birds are near the nest. Their call is lower in pitch than other buteos’ calls.

Next, don’t miss these simply stunning pictures of hawks.