Look for Swainson’s Hawks in the Summer Skies

Learn what a Swainson's hawk looks like, what they eat and where (and when) birders can find them in North America.

What Does a Swainson’s Hawk Look Like?

309340113 1 Amber Fortowsky Bnb Pc 2022Courtesy Amber Fortowsky
Swainson’s hawk on a fencepost in Saskatchewan

A Swainson’s hawk has dark plumage on the head, upper body and wings. The tail is finely barred, with a broad band near the tip. Also look for a white throat patch under the bill.

Some birds have an all dark underside (dark morph); others are mostly white with dark breast band (light morph). Juvenile birds have a heavily streaked breast.

While soaring in flight, a Swainson’s hawk holds its wings slightly above the horizontal—a useful hawk identification clue.

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Habitat and Range

309368221 1 Bev Lindorff Bnb Pc 2022Courtesy Bev Lindorff
Adult light morph Swainson’s hawk

Look for these birds of prey in brushlands, plains, open grasslands and foothills. The raptors are commonly seen in the western states and Great Plains during the summer breeding season. Their range extends into western Canada and Alaska.

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swainsons hawkCourtesy Richard Goerg / Our Canada
Swainson’s hawk flying above cliffs in Alberta, Canada

These long-distance migrants fly more than 6,000 miles, moving from Alaska to their wintering grounds in South America. But a few get off track and fly to Florida in the winter.

Less prone to migrate along natural features such as ridges and waterways, these hawks instead flock up by the thousands. The migrating flocks swirl southward. When a group settles to roost for the night, some of them will rest on the ground if there is a shortage of tree perches.

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swainson's hawkCourtesy Kellie Carter
Insects and small rodents are their preferred prey

Although adults feed their chicks the usual small mammal hawk prey, these hawks predominantly eat insects after nesting season. They often feed on the ground, hopping after crickets and grasshoppers. They catch gophers and ground squirrels by perching patiently on small mounds of earth in front of the rodents’ burrows and waiting for unwary critters to appear.

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

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.