February 2023
Bird of the Month
Ryan Crouse

Ferruginous Hawk

In Prescott’s rural neighborhoods many are aware of the ubiquitous red-tailed hawk, or perhaps you’ve seen a cunning Cooper’s hawk patrolling your bird feeders. While these are fascinating birds in their own right, there are somewhere between ten and 20 raptor species we can observe in the tri-city region. Each of these species exhibits its own unique characteristics, making our local birds of prey a very fun group to observe and differentiate from one another.

Photo by Ryan Crouse

One of the more intriguing species to me is the regal ferruginous hawk. Its Latin name, Buteo regalis, speaks to its handsome yet fearsome appearance while revealing its membership in the diverse Buteo family of hawks. This genus includes the red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk and zone-tailed hawk, among many more. Compared with its peers, this species is the one deemed regalis, saying a lot when you consider the competition!

Their common name speaks to the rusty color of the hawk’s mantle or shoulders, most prominent among light-morph individuals. Looking at the root of the name it’s easy to spot ‘ferrous,’ meaning something containing iron. Given its home in the ghost-town-speckled North American West, this reference to oxidized chromaticity is appropriate. Like other buteos the ferruginous hawk can come in a variety of color morphs, ranging from the largely paperwhite-breasted light-morph variety to a rich, chocolate-brown dark morph. Light-morph birds also carry steel-blue primary and secondary feathers, most easily viewed on a sitting bird, contrasting vividly with its rusty-orange shoulders.

While you’re likely to see a ferruginous hawk atop a grassland power pole, they are just as at home near the ground, which can be a useful distinction for identifying them. It’s not uncommon to see one perched on a fence post or even a small bluff, scanning vast expanses of prairie habitat. It is much less likely to be seen with most other raptors, a characteristic born of necessity. With a home territory offering little in the way of natural elevated vantage points, it uses whatever lower perches are available. Coupled with amazing eyesight, these perches provide enough of a leg up on prey while limiting the hawk’s own exposure to local predators. In more modern habitats they have learned to take advantage of taller man-made structures while retaining their terrestrial habits.

Along the same lines, ferruginous hawks will nest on bluffs or rocky outcrops when possible, but given the right circumstances they may find a suitable spot in a much lower-lying area. Coyotes and other animals love to dine on nutrient-rich eggs, so the hawks will often build large nests of relatively big sticks and limbs. Since it’s hard to weave these larger pieces of wood together into a more traditional nest, their nurseries often resemble loosely arranged piles encapsulating the young. Settlers moving west across sparsely wooded grasslands would often find odd piles of buffalo bones, later determined to be ferruginous nests. The hawks would also line the nests with buffalo dung, offering the young birds great insulation during the cool prairie nights. Settlers and their Native American neighbors also used the dung, which is tightly packed grass at its core, to fuel fires and keep their own young warm. With the decline of North America’s bison herds over the last 200 years, ferruginous hawks can now be found using cattle dung in the same manner. Luckily, humans generally have more attractive fuel options today.

While the population is doing well overall, its historic grassland range is among the most threatened and fastest shrinking. Often regarded as desolate or useless, humans generally have a more tolerant view of turning our surrounding prairies into seas of tract homes. As our western towns continue to swell in size, the royal buteo and others sharing this intrinsically important ecosystem are being squeezed to their limits.

For now and hopefully well into the future, we can marvel at the ferruginous hawk with just a short drive. During our winter months check for them perched on a fence post or pole. The eastern outskirts of Chino Valley is a prime area for spotting this amazing bird. Until next time, happy birding!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.