Species Spotlight: Ferruginous Hawk
Common name: Ferruginous Hawk
Latin name: Buteo regalis
Status under SARA: Listed as Schedule 1, Threatened under SARA. Also listed as Threatened under the 2008 COSEWIC Assessment.
Range: The Ferruginous Hawk is found in open areas in western North America. It breeds in grassland habitats from southern Canadian prairies to California, and overwinters in Central Mexico.
Life span: Adult hawks can live up to 20 years in the wild. The oldest banded bird recorded was 23 years, 8 months old.
Size: The Ferruginous Hawk has a wingspan that can reach 1.5 meters, a head-to-talon length of 56-69cm, and can weigh between 0.97-2.1kg. Females are relatively larger.
Population estimate: Approx. 1200 breeding pairs over the Canadian habitat as of COSEWIC 2005 assessment.
Regalis, meaning regal in Latin, is a fitting description for the Ferruginous Hawk as it is the largest birds of prey in the Buteo genus of the hawk family. It is a native grassland bird of open-country, shrubland, desert and sagebrush steppes on the Great Plains. In Canada, it breeds on the prairies of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and south-western Manitoba during the late spring and early summer.
The Ferruginous Hawk has rufous-coloured feathers and pale-beige to white underparts. its copper-like colour refers to its common name “Ferruginous” which is derived from the Latin word for rust. Another identification tip is the pronounced brown-feathered “V” along the underparts of its legs and tail.
This hawk also occurs in two distinct light and dark colour morphs. Apart from having lighter browns and copper tones, the feather colouration of its underparts is what really sets the two versions apart. The feathers on the upper parts of the wing, body and tail feathers are pale with speckles of brown in the light morph, however in dark morphs, these feathers are rufous-brown. Since the tail feathers are brown above and white below, dark morphs do not have the “V”, causing confusion to even the best birders!
You can find this raptor species in areas abundant with grassland rodents, especially Ground Squirrels. Ferruginous Hawks are very much dependant on common rodent species and in its Canadian range, that species is the Richardson’s Squirrel. However, this hawk will eat what’s available, thus its diet includes small to medium-sized mammals, smaller bird species, snakes and large insects. For catching its prey, the hawk hunts in what is called the stalking method which is to wait on the ground by the prey’s hole or den and snatch it when it pops out.
Ferruginous Hawk has an exquisite courtship. It is mainly monogamous and breeding pairs will meet and perform a dancing routine in the sky where they soar in circles together, then the male drives down then ascends repeatedly, and finally the pair will grasp beaks and talons and spiral downwards.
Building a nest requires sticks, bushes, grass, shredded bark and/or cow dung. Historically, the Ferruginous Hawk would use bison bones and dung! The locations chosen for nest sites are quite varied. They can be found at ground level or up to 20m high on cliffs, haystacks, farm building, and/or agriculture high towers. Females can lay 2-8 eggs with an average of 6 eggs and the incubation period is 32-36 days. The nestlings attempt their first flight after 2 months.
From 1992 to 2005, the species declined by 64% in Canada. Ferruginous Hawks have shown extreme sensitivity to habitat disturbance and keystone species dependence. Unfortunately, its range is now half the amount of what it was historically in the 1920’s. The loss, degradation and fragmentation of its native grassland habitat are the most serious threats to the population of the Ferruginous Hawks.
What is Being Done
The COSEWIC’s assessment in 2008 has listed Buteo regalis under “Threatened” and is protected under the Species at Risk Act. The species is also protected by the Canada National Parks Act in the Grasslands National Park of Canada, and as well it is protected under Alberta’s Wildlife Act and Manitoba Endangered Species Act.
Since Alberta has majority of its Canadian range, the province has the Alberta Ferruginous Hawk Recovery Plan 2009-2014 in place. This plan focuses on habitat management, reduction of human disturbances and human-caused mortality, population monitoring, outreach and research. Manitoba is also working on monitoring the Ferruginous Hawk with their Threatened Grassland Bird Project where they monitor the population status and threats to the hawk, along with other grassland bird species.
What You Can Do
Since nest site availability is a limiting factor for Ferruginous Hawk, Alberta has brochures on how to create nesting habitat by setting up your own nesting pole and platform. For more information, check out this PDF.
Be aware and share! One way to help any type of wildlife is to research these magnificent creatures and share your knowledge via social media! It’s one simple click away to learn about what you can do to help nature and then teach others!
Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, COSEWIC
Species at Risk Public Registry, SARA
All About Birds
Government of Manitoba – Species Monitoring
Alberta Ferruginous Hawk Recovery Plan 2009 -2014
Thanks to Nature Canada volunteer Tina-Louise Rossit for contributing this profile.