South Dakota
Birds and Birding
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Rough-legged Hawk

Buteo lagopus

Length: 18- 24 inches Wingspan: 46 - 54 inches Seasonality: Winter
ID Keys: Black patch on underwing wrist and black band on tail (seen in flight), small bill with yellow cere.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo LagopusThe Rough-legged Hawk is so named because of the feathering that extends down the legs to the base of the toes, an adaptation to the cold environments this species prefers.  A true cold-weather hawk, they are only seen in South Dakota in the winter or during migration.  Rough-legged Hawks are one of the few large hawks that often hunts by hovering.   They are also unique for big Buteo raptors in that they can sometimes perch on very thin branches at the tops of trees.

Habitat: Breeds on the edge of the treeline to the tundra near the Arctic.  Prefers open country during the winter, such as prairie, open farmland, and desert scrub.

Diet: Primarily rodents, especially lemmings and voles on its summer breeding grounds in the far North.  Will also feed on other rodents (mice, rats, ground squirrels), as well as birds, insects, small lizards, and frogs.  Will also feed on carrion.

Behavior: Often easily distinguished from other large Buteos due to its hunting behavior, as they will often hover over open ground looking for prey.  Also will hunt by observing from a perch.

Breeding: Non-breeder in South Dakota

Song: Generally quiet during the winter in South Dakota.  On breeding grounds, will make a clear descending kyeeer cry.

Migration: Summers in the extreme northern part of North America.  Winters throughout much of the northern 2/3rds of the United States. 

Similar Species: Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk

Conservation Status: Numbers generally stable, although the population fluctuates with changing lemming and vole populations in the Arctic.

South Dakota "Hotspot: The Fort Pierre National Grasslands south of Pierre are normally full of Rough-legged Hawks in the winter.  It's not unusual to come across a few dozen driving through on a winter day.

Further Information: 1) USGS Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter, Rough-legged Hawk

2) Cornell Lab of Ornithology - Rough-legged Hawk

3) - Rough-legged Hawk

Photo Information: November 27th, 2010 - Near Presho in Lyman County, South Dakota -- Terry L. Sohl

Additional Photos: Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Rough-legged hawk photos.


Click on the range map for a higher-resolution view
Rough-legged Hawk - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Uncommon to common winter resident