The broad-winged hawk

Published 12:06 am Monday, March 31, 2003

By Staff
The broad-winged hawk is one of the more common buteos hawks in this area, second only to the red-tail. Despite their relative prevalence few birders are more than vaguely aware of them. Perhaps this is because they don't have a distinctive 'signature' feature. When we see a hawk with a red tail we say, "Oh, there's a red-tail." When we see a white rump spot we say, "Oh there's a harrier." Pronounced tail bands denote a cooper's. When we see a broad-winged, though, about all we can say is, "Uh, there's some kinda' hawk."
It is a bit smaller than the red-tail, with the body being about 15 inches long and the wings spanning around three feet. The upper parts are a dark greyish brown and the buff colored breast is heavily marked with dark brown arrow head shaped streaking. The tail has several wide black and white bands. In flight the undersides of the wings are an off white with a black border along the wing tip and trailing edge of the wing. While the tail barring and underwing coloring are clues to the broad-winged's identity, these are somewhat similar to the red-shouldered hawk and can be easily confused.
The broad-winged prefers more wooded areas than the red-tail. He is usually seen in or around wood lots sitting on some snag offering a good vantage point from which to spot prey. Like the other buteos hawks, the broad-winged feeds on mice and small mammals such as chipmunks and red squirrels. Quite unlike most other large hawks, though, insects are also an important part of their diet. They are especially fond of large caterpillars. Grasshoppers, crickets, cicada and large beetles are also important food sources. Snakes, frogs, toads and small birds round out the broad-winged's menu. Very seldom do they take on large prey such as grouse, adult rabbits or barnyard chickens. This diet of mice and insects makes them one of the most beneficial hawks to man.
Broad-wingeds summer throughout Eastern North America from the Gulf Coast to Southern Canada. Their nest is usually a nondescript pile of twigs high up in the crotch of a tree.
The broad-winged isn't into dealing with the rigors of winter, though, and those from all but the most southerly states migrate as far south as Venezuela and Peru in South America for the winter. If the broad-winged has a claim to fame it's this migration. In the fall they gather in flocks of several thousand. Here they form what's called a 'kettle' where they all bunch together and soar in a cyclone like, rotating mass to catch a thermal that sends them high into the sky with virtually no effort on their part. They repeat this over and over, riding one thermal after another on their way south.
Their return in the spring isn't as spectacular. For some unknown reason they are more scattered on their northward journey. They still occasionally do the thermal catching kettles in the spring but in much smaller numbers and less frequently. The southern shores of the Great Lakes is one of the few areas where they congregate on their spring migration. Unfortunately we're too late now to have much hope of seeing the spectacle this year.
And speaking of spring, you've surely noticed it is progressing right along. The goldfinches are starting to take on a yellow hue and all of nature's early harbingers are settling in now. Turkey vultures are everywhere as are the other early migrants and the wood lots are seeing some shades of bright green.
As uplifting as they are, there can be a downside to these early warm days, though. If we get a run of 70-degree days too early many seeds germinate and start sprouting. Then along comes a heavy frost and, 'whamo', they're done for. I planted over a thousand wild lupine seeds in my prairies last fall and the last thing I want is for them to sprout now. Pray for a few more weeks of cold weather. Well, maybe just sort-of cold. Carpe diem.
Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at