Buteos are robust hawks with long, broad, rounded wings and short broad tails. Because they are easily observed soaring in wide, lazy circles or perched in a conspicuous place, they are among the best known hawks. They hunt mainly from perches, dropping to the ground to capture their prey.
Broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus)
The Broad-winged Hawk is one of the smallest buteos, about the size of a crow. It is 14 to 19 inches long, with a wingspan of about 3 feet. Its relatively short wings and tail give the bird a chunky appearance in flight.
The adult is grayish-brown on the back, and its underparts are white, heavily barred with reddish-brown. Its tail is dark, with two or three equally wide white bands. The immature is brown-backed, and its underparts are whitish with vertical brown streaks. The barring in the tail of the young bird is not as prominent as in the adult. Broad-winged Hawks breed throughout eastern North America, from Canada to Florida. Many nest in New Jersey in areas where proper habitat still exists, primarily deep deciduous forests. In early autumn they begin a spectacular migration southward, some going as far as South America. During this time huge concentrations of these hawks can be seen along the mountain and coastal flyways of our state.
Their diet consists of a wide variety of prey animals including small mammals, snakes, frogs and toads, grasshoppers and caterpillars.
Red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus)
Red-shouldered Hawks are medium-sized slender buteos, larger than Broad-wings but smaller than Red-tails. They have body lengths of 18 to 24 inches and wingspans of 3!/2 to 4 feet. Their backs are brown, flecked with white, and their shoulders are rufous. Immature birds have brown teardrop-shaped streaks on their white breasts; adults have pale robin-red underparts.
Red-shouldered Hawks inhabit low, wet, open woodlands usually near a river, stream or swamp. They prey upon the wide variety of animal life found there: small mammals, frogs, snakes, lizards, insects and birds.
Some Red-shoulders remain resident in New Jersey year round, but most migrate southward as winter approaches. They were once common here, but loss of their preferred habitat and other factors not yet clearly identified have reduced their numbers. At present their breeding population is considered endangered in the state.
Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
New Jersey’s most common large hawk, the Red-tail, is named for the rufous color of the adult’s tail. These buteos are often seen soaring in wide circles or perched conspicuously in trees along roadsides. Vocal hawks, their distinctive call – a high, shrill “kree-e-e” – is usually uttered in flight.
Red-tails stand about 2 feet tall and have wingspans of 4l/2 to 5 feet. They are dark brown above, white to cinnamon below, and usually have a band of dark streaks across the belly. Immature birds are similar to adults in plumage except for their tails – the young have brown tails for their first year. When they molt, these brown feathers are replaced by the characteristic red of the species.
Red-tailed Hawks are found throughout North America and many live in New Jersey year round. They prefer a habitat of fields and pastures mixed with open woodlands. Their large stick nests are usually built in the tallest available tree. From one to three young are raised each year.
Their diet consists mainly of mammals and includes mice, voles, squirrels and rabbits.
Rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus)
The Rough-legged Hawk breeds in the far north and occurs in New Jersey only as a rare winter visitor. Like many northern species, it is protected from the cold by feathers that cover even its legs and toes. Its common and scientific names both refer to the furry appearance of its legs; the Greek word lagopus means “hare-footed.”
Rough-legged Hawks are large, about 2 feet long with wingspans of 4l/2 feet. Plumage color varies greatly in this species from light to very dark (melanistic) individuals. All have a conspicuous white rump patch and a wide, dark band at the tip of the tail.
Birds of open country and graceful soarers, Rough-legs can be distinguished from other buteos in flight by their longer wings and tails. They have a habit of hovering in one spot, as Kestrels and Ospreys do.
Rough-legged Hawks are rodent eaters and feed on small animals, primarily meadow voles.