Broad-winged Hawks are one of only five raptor species (the others being Swainson’s Hawk, Mississippi Kite, Swallow-tailed Kite, and Gray Hawk) that migrate almost entirely out of North America for the winter. While they can be rather furtive during the breeding season, in certain locations, they suddenly become very apparent in the fall, appearing from nowhere and moving south in large flocks.
They are a member of the Buteo genus, a group of about 30 species found almost worldwide, excluding Australasia and far southeast Asia. These are typically medium-sized, stocky raptors with broad wings used for extensive soaring. Broad-winged Hawks are one of the smallest of the buteos and spend more time within forest and woodland habitats through most of the year than their relatives.
There are six subspecies of Broad-winged Hawk, with distinct breeding ranges but differing only slightly in appearance and physiology. Five of the subspecies are endemic to islands or island groups in the Caribbean.
- B.p.platypterus breeds in North America and winters in South America
- B.p. cubanensis of Cuba
- B.p.brunnescens of Puerto Rico
- B.p.insulicola of Antigua
- B.p.rivierei of Dominica, Martinique and St. Lucia
- B.p.antillarum of St. Vincent, Grenada (Lesser Antilles) and Tobago
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Aves
- Order: Accipitriformes
- Family: Accipitiridae
- Genus: Buteo
- Species: Buteo platypterus
How to Identify a Broad-Winged Hawk
Birds of prey can pose quite the identification challenge, especially during migration when you might spot overflying birds that you are not used to seeing around your yard or local patch. Broad-winged Hawks do not have any extremely similar species to be confused with, but neither do they have much in the way of really striking features to aid immediate identification.
They take a little bit of getting used to before they can be quickly and confidently identified; it certainly took me a little while to understand their shape and flight style when I first saw them migrating over our fall watchpoint, particularly when they fly at great heights as they often do.
Not many raptors in North America form such large flocks as Broad-winged Hawks do during their migration, so if you see a group of hundreds or maybe even thousands of birds circling together, that is good indication of what species you are looking at, and can help you make an identification even if they are too high to appreciate plumage details and body shape.
Broad-winged Hawks are a small, compact hawk, with short, broad, and pointed wings and a short tail. The tail pattern is the most noticeable identification feature and is easily visible when watching a flying bird from the below. The tail is mostly black, with a broad white band across the middle, a thin white band at the tip, and a narrow white band at the base, which is broken by the overlapping undertail coverts. The underwing is pale whitish overall, with a thick dark band along the trailing edge and dark wingtips.
There is variable barring on the underside of the flight feathers and spotting on the underwing coverts. The underside of the body is whitish, with variable red-brown barring, usually densest on the upper chest, forming a broad band and becoming more sparse lower down the belly. The legs and feet are yellow. The chin is paler with vertical white and brown streaks. The head is brown with some fine white streaking, a large brown eye, and a hooked black bill with yellow cere (the bare fleshy base). The back and upperwing are rather uniform dark brown with thin pale or rufous fringes to the feathers.
There is also a very rare ‘dark morph’ found mostly in the north and west of the breeding range. These birds have a very different appearance, being dark brown-black almost all over. The underwing is distinctly two-toned, with dark coverts contrasting with pale flight feathers, which do have the same pattern of dark trailing edge and wingtips as the light morph. The bold tail pattern is also the same.
The Broad-winged Hawks resident on islands in the Caribbean are very similar but usually smaller than those in mainland North America and tend to be darker and slightly more rufous, with more barring on the underside.
Juveniles are a little less distinctive, lacking the bold tail pattern and dark trailing edge of the adults, and the size and shape of the body is one of the best clues. In flight, the underside is primarily pale; the tail has many narrow dusky dark bars and one terminal bar at the tip. The underwing has fine barring on the flight feathers and small spots on the coverts and dark wingtips. The underside of the body has dark spots on the chest and flanks. The chin and throat are white with a dark central stripe. The upperparts are brown like the adults.
Where Do Broad-Winged Hawks Live: Habitat
During their nesting season in North America, Broad-winged Hawks reside almost entirely in mixed and deciduous forest with a breeding range covering most of the eastern USA from Minnesota east to the Atlantic and south to the Gulf of Mexico. In Canada, they reach further north, east, and west, far across the prairies into Edmonton, Alberta, and to Nova Scotia and the north shores of the Gulf of St Lawrence. I mostly see them close to a break in the forest cover, along the edge, or by small clearings or pools, as this is where they do most of their hunting, and they are likely nesting not far from these places. In winter, they again prefer forest habitats, often in rainforest, but will also frequent slightly more open country, scrub, and plantations.
Broad-Winged Hawk Migration
After a discreet and secretive breeding season, Broad-winged Hawks perform a rapid and spectacular migration each fall. I would go so far as to say that it is among the most dramatic and visible migrations of any North American birds. Migration starts with birds in the north and east of the breeding range in mid-august, soon after fledging their young and when their prey abundance starts to reduce and crucially when summer temperatures still generate considerable thermals.
These thermals, rising columns of warm air, aid the hawks on the journey south and reduce the need to expend energy. The best thermals and mountain updrafts attract and concentrate large numbers of Broad-winged Hawks and other raptors, forming great flocks known as kettles, sometimes with thousands of birds. With fully open wings and spread tails, the birds circle around over the rising air and get pushed up to altitudes of several thousand feet. As the rising air loses strength and reaches its maximum height, the birds peel off in their desired direction of travel and glide towards the next updraft, ideally reaching it before needing to flap their wings too much as they lose height. On reaching the next thermal, they regain height and continue the process. This allows them to cover large distances with minimal energy expenditure.
Through the breeding range in North America, the migration is quite spread out, and flocks may only consist of a few individuals up to several hundred, though they will start to concentrate in migration bottlenecks such as a narrow crossing over a water body.
The shores of the Great Lakes can see flocks of tens of thousands before dispersing again. As they go further south and out of the United States, they really start to converge into truly spectacular flocks, with Veracruz in Mexico seeing the biggest gatherings as hundreds of thousands squeeze through a narrow flyway between the mountains and the ocean. This demonstration of the wonder of bird migration also attracts birdwatchers, who come to marvel at the scene, and the large numbers of other birds of prey species follow the same route. The birds nesting in Canada and flying as far south as Brazil will have a journey of nearly 4000 miles, taking nearly three months to arrive!
Wintering birds begin their return journey in March, following a similar route and using the same tactics to arrive back in their breeding range.
Broad-Winged Hawk Diet and Feeding
Broad-winged Hawks are perch hunters; they sit quietly on a branch looking for prey on the forest floor below before quickly dropping down, almost pouncing or flying a short distance to catch the target. Favored hunting areas are usually close to the forest edge, a clearing, or next to a pond or stream. Small mammals and amphibians are favored prey items, but diet depends on location, habitat, and local prey availability. Other frequent meals include young birds and insects.
Broad-Winged Hawk Breeding and Nesting
Most Broad-winged Hawks return to their breeding areas between late April and mid-May and will occasionally re-use the nest from the previous year. If building a new nest, both male and female will take part, with the female doing most of the construction, and this can take a few weeks. Twigs are collected from the ground and also broken from branches.
Two or three eggs are laid, though sometimes just one, or rarely up to four. The female does the vast majority of the incubation, with the male taking over briefly while she feeds away from the nest on prey he has brought to her. After one month, the eggs hatch; like other raptors, the chicks have open eyes and are covered in soft grey-white down. For the next month, the male will continue to hunt and bring food back to the female, who tears it up to feed the young.
After thirty days, they can take short flights, far enough to leave the nest and wait for food deliveries on nearby branches. After another two weeks, at the age of six or seven weeks, the young can fly competently and will be able to catch their own prey, learning how themselves with no instruction from the parents. Within the next few weeks, they will have to start their epic migration!
Broad-Winged Hawk Population
Thanks to their highly visible migration, it is possible for ornithologists to achieve fairly accurate estimations of Broad-winged Hawk population numbers and trends. Over 1.5 million have been recorded migrating south through Mexico in a fall season, and this is likely to be a quite complete count of the population; perhaps up to 2 million individuals exist.
Are Broad-Winged Hawks Endangered?
With a population considered to be stable and possibly even increasing slightly, Broad-winged Hawks are not endangered and are classified as ‘Least Concern’ by IUCN.
Broad-Winged Hawk Predators
As a bird of prey, a predator themselves, Broad-winged Hawks do not have many regular predators. Adults may be taken occasionally by other larger raptors like Red-tailed Hawks or eagles, and by Great Horned Owls while roosting at night. They are most vulnerable at the egg or chick stage of nesting. Here, they have a larger group of potential predators, including crows and mammals, like raccoons and black bears.
Broad-Winged Hawk Lifespan
The oldest known wild Broad-winged Hawk reached 14 years of age, but longevity is poorly studied as this species is not often trapped for banding studies.
Answer: As a bird that hunts inside the forest, Broad-winged Hawks have proportionately short wings, allowing them to fly easily between trees and branches when hunting. To compensate for the reduced surface area this causes, they do indeed have quite broad wings, allowing them to gain more assistance from thermals. This is particularly important given their long migrations when soaring over rising air reduces the amount of effort it takes to fly between continents.
Answer: If you live in eastern North America, you could quite easily have Broad-winged Hawks nesting in your local woodlot or forest and not even know about them. They keep a very low profile while nesting and, as such, are difficult to observe in the summer. The best way to see them is to visit a migration watchpoint.
Some of the best locations are Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania and Hawk Cliff in Ontario. Be sure to time your visit, though, as migration is concentrated over a very short timeframe. At Hawk Mountain, an average of over 8000 birds pass through each year, almost all of them in the period between 10-20 September. A visit to Veracruz, Mexico, could be extremely rewarding; the record count there is a mind-blowing 500,000 Broad-winged Hawks in a single day, with early October being the best time.
Answer: While Broad-winged Hawks do have an epic migration, they do not quite match up to some Peregrine Falcons. Most Peregrines are fairly short-distance migrants, or they stay resident, but some will travel incredible distances. A small number of the birds that nest in the high Arctic tundra of North America will fly all the way to Argentina for the non-breeding season, racking up an incredible 15,500 miles each year.
Broad-winged Hawks are a beguiling species with a stark contrast between their breeding and migratory behavior. Few people even know if they have a pair nesting nearby each summer, and even fewer are aware of the colossal journey they will undertake come the fall. Intercontinental bird migration is one of the most incredible feats of the natural world, and Broad-winged Hawks are true masters and one of the few species that offer us the chance to observe the process.
- Goodrich, L. J., S. T. Crocoll, and S. E. Senner (2020). Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.
- Ferguson-Lees, J.; Christie, D. (2001). Raptors of the World. London: Christopher Helm. ISBN 0-7136-8026-1
- del Hoyo, J.; Elliot, A.; Sargatal, eds. (1996). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. ISBN 84-87334-20-2.
- BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Buteo platypterus. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 16/09/2022
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