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Forest and Rangeland Birds of the United States

Natural History and Habitat Use

Rough-legged Hawk -- Buteo lagopus


RANGE: Breeds from western and northern Alaska, northern Yukon, and northern Labrador south to northern and southeastern Mackenzie, east to northern Quebec and Newfoundland; also from Kodiak Island and Umnak in the eastern Aleutian Islands and the Arctic Islands north to Prince Patrick, Victoria, Bylot, and southwestern Baffin Islands. Winters from south-central Alaska (casually) and southern Canada south to southern California, southern Arizona east to southern Texas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia, casually to eastern Texas and the Gulf Coast. Concentrates in areas of high prey density during winter.

STATUS: Most common hawk of the American arctic.

HABITAT: Inhabits open tundra and mountainsides; does not inhabit forests unless there is much open ground. Essentially an open country dweller that occupies a large range in its seasonal wanderings. In winter, prefers conifer groves for roosting and open, treeless areas for hunting.

NEST: Nests primarily on cliffs along river bluffs, but is flexibile in selecting nesting substrate. Locates nests usually under overhangs on rocky cliffs, outcroppings, and ledges; occasionally nests in stunted trees or on the ground. Often returns to the same nest for many years.

FOOD: Hunts for food in wet meadows, bogs, and riparian areas. Generally seeks prey from the air rather than from a perch. Microtine rodents such as brown lemming, collared lemming, tundra vole, Alaska vole, red-backed vole, and other small mammals comprise the bulk of the diet. Shifts to other prey when rodents become scarce. Also consumes young ptarmigan, arctic ground squirrels, and sometimes small rabbits. During the breeding season, may consume up to 20 percent of diet as birds; during winter, consumes mammalian prey almost exclusively.

REFERENCES: Heintzelman 1979, Sprunt 1955, Terres 1980, White and Cade 1971, Zarn 1975.


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