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Ferruginous Hawks — the largest buteos in North America — are seasonal visitors to southern Arizona, turning up each autumn around the beginning of October and staying through to about mid-March, after which they return to their spring/summer breeding grounds on western North America’s northern plains and prairies.
They are magnificent. An adult Ferruginous Hawk is about 50 percent bigger than a Red-tailed Hawk. The majority of these birds have brilliant white plumage set off by rusty red (there is also a chocolate brown dark morph of this species). Seeing one of these birds in flight from close up is an absolutely spectacular sight.
I was very fortunate a couple of weeks ago to be able to capture images of one of these big hawks as it flew past me.
These images illustrate the bird’s plumage and its characteristic outline in flight. In this first image you get a view of the brilliant white plumage on the bird’s breast and underwings and the contrasting red plumage on its legs and upper wings. Ferruginous Hawks get their name from their “rusty” plumage. The first image also shows off this hawk’s huge wingspan. A Ferruginous Hawk has a wingspan of nearly five feet, about a foot longer than that of a Red-tailed Hawk.
The hawk’s feet are also clearly visible in the first image. Those feet are surprisingly dainty for a raptor of this size. Ferruginous Hawks do much of their hunting on the ground. It’s not unusual for one of these birds to perch very patiently next to a rodent burrow, waiting for its potential meal to make the fatal mistake of lifting its head out of the burrow. The hawk has the ability to strike out with a foot with lightning speed, snagging its prey. The small feet enable the Ferruginous Hawk to reach down into narrow rodent tunnels.
A bird this large can appear ponderous in flight. It’s deceptive. It may take a few wingbeats for one of these birds to accelerate to top speed, but in fact, Ferruginous Hawks are among the fastest flying buteos.
Ferruginous Hawks used to have a year-round presence in southern Arizona. Sadly, we exterminated their principle prey during breeding season, the Black-tailed Prairie Dog. Deprived of necessary food, the hawks retreated up north to breed.
This last image shows off one other feature of this bird, its enormous mouth or “gape,” outlined in yellow. It is proportionately larger than the mouths of other buteos. It may be that this allows the Ferruginous Hawk to swallow its prey quickly and thus, to avoid interference by other hungry predators.
Images made with a Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 IS L zoom lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 400, f9 @ 1/2000.