Look for a Rough-Legged Hawk in Winter

Learn what a rough-legged hawk looks like and when and where birders can spot these birds of prey in North America throughout the year.

What Does a Rough-Legged Hawk Look Like?

what do hawks eatLarry Keller, Lititz Pa./Getty Images
Look for distinctive field marks to identify a rough-legged hawk.

A rough-legged hawk has a broad belly band and large dark circular patches on the underwings that contrast with the paler flight feathers. In flight, the tail shows white at the base with dark banding at the tip.

A few birds (dark morph) have very dark feathers and can look nearly black when perched. But they still show a distinct pattern on the wings and tail when in flight.

This medium sized buteo measures approximately 21 inches long with a 23-inch wingspan.

A typical juvenile rough-legged hawk has a black belly, which contrasts with its streaky buff-colored chest.

Did You Know: This is one of only three North American hawks with feathered legs—the other two are the golden eagle and the Ferruginous hawk.

Check out essential hawk identification tips for birders.

Range and Habitat

Rough-legged Hawk in flight huntingLarry Keller, Lititz Pa./Getty Images
You’ll likely only see this hawk in winter.

For most birders, the rough-legged hawk is a species only seen in winter—unless you happen to be on the Arctic tundra. These raptors migrate south to spend winter in southern Canada and across much of the United States.

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

What Do Rough-Legged Hawks Eat?

rough-legged buzzard caught a mouse in winterDmitry Mikhaylyuk/Getty Images
This rough-legged hawk caught a mouse in a winter field.

You can often see rough-legged hawks briefly hovering in place with rapidly beating wings before plummeting down on unsuspecting small rodents such as lemmings, mice and voles.

Why do crows chase hawks and owls?

Nesting Habits

These birds build their nests on cliffs in the high arctic. They do not breed in the United States, with the exception of Alaska.

Don’t miss these simply stunning pictures of hawks.

Sounds and Calls

Listen for whistling sounds and a clear descending keeeeyr cry when the hawks are near the nest.

Next, learn how to identify a red-tailed hawk.

Lori Vanover
Lori has 20 years of experience writing and editing home, garden, birding and lifestyle content for several publishers. As Birds & Blooms senior digital editor, she leads a team of writers and editors sharing birding tips and expert gardening advice. Since joining Trusted Media Brands 13 years ago, she has held roles in digital and print, editing magazines and books, curating special interest publications, managing social media accounts, creating digital content and newsletters, and working with the Field Editors—Birds & Blooms network of more than 50 backyard birders. Passionate about animals and nature, Lori has a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural and Environmental Communications from the University of Illinois. In 2023, she became certified as a Wisconsin Extension Master Gardener, and she is a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and sits on the organization's Publications Advisory Committee. She frequently checks on her bird feeders while working from home and tests new varieties of perennials, herbs and vegetable plants in her ever-growing backyard gardens.