I recently had the opportunity to walk some good mixed grass prairie near the Missouri Breaks by Indian Hills Resort southwest of White Shield. As we were observing the profusion of wildflowers, the scream of a raptor was heard above.
It was a very large, light colored hawk. A closer look revealed rusty colored leg feathers forming a V on the underside of the bird. It was a ferruginous hawk, the largest American hawk, with a wingspan that can reach over four feet. We spent several minutes in awe watching this magnificent raptor ply the thermals while effortlessly surveying its domain below.
The ferruginous hawk is a buteo, or soaring hawk with broad wings and a rounded tail. Most of you are familiar with the red-tailed hawk or perhaps the Swainson’s hawk. The ferruginous hawk has a similar form with longer wings and a much lighter underside. The rusty or ferruginous color, particularly on the legs is an important identification characteristic. The scientific name of the ferruginous hawk is Buteo regalis, and regal it is!
It is a species of the wide open grasslands of the western part of North America. Here in North Dakota it may be found mainly on the mixed grass prairies of the Missouri Coteau and westward. They used to be quite common on the prairies of central and western North Dakota, but as you might expect, they are not as common anymore largely due to loss of habitat from conversion of native prairie to small grains. It is listed as threatened in several states.
I found an interesting note on the ferruginous hawk in Bob Stewart’s Breeding Birds of North Dakota. Stewart noted that in 1905 Peabody referred to North Dakota as “that ferruginous-rough-leg state,” a reference to this hawk. If history was written a bit differently, and Peabody’s comments gained a wider audience, rather than becoming known as the flickertail state, we may have become the ferruginous state.
Watch for this regal bird as you travel the state this summer. For your reference we have attached a photo of ferruginous hawk by Rick Bohn with this text.
Get out and enjoy!
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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