Ferruginous Hawk Guide (Buteo regalis)

Latest posts by Reina Esser (see all)

I never get tired of sighting hawks! How could I? They’re gorgeous, fierce, intelligent, and humble. I am always in awe when in their presence.

Whether they are sitting in an open field or perching atop a utility pole, pausing to watch them is a must for me. If this sentiment is foreign to you, I encourage you to spend time observing Buteos. 

The Ferruginous Hawk or Buteo regalis is precisely that, regal. This bird’s name, ferruginous, is derived from the Latin word Ferrugo, meaning rust.” It is the largest and heaviest hawk in the Buteo family.

Diurnal birds of prey are classified under the order Accipitriformes. You’ll find kites, hawks, eagles, and vultures in this order. The Ferruginous Hawk is further classified under the family Accipitridae, differentiating these birds of prey based on their strongly hooked bills.

The Ferruginous Hawk is an ancient species with fossils dating back to the Pleistocene era, 11,700 years ago. Its genus, Buteo, encompasses medium to large raptors.

How to Identify a Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk

Size & Shape

Buteo hawks are known for their large bodies and broad wings. The Ferruginous Hawk is no different except it is the largest hawk within the genus. It has a robust body with long pointed wingtips nearly reaching their broad and square tails.

They are 20 to 26 inches long with a wingspan of 56 inches. That’s a wingspan that is roughly as tall as I am! They weigh 2 to 4.5 pounds.

Buteo regalis is a sexually dimorphic species. This means that male and female hawks appear physically different.

In the case of the Ferruginous Hawk, the female is one and a half times larger than her male counterpart. Girl power, am I right?


As we learned in the taxonomy section of this guide, the name Ferruginous comes from the Latin Ferrugo. When translated to English, Ferrugo means rust. These beautifully majestic hawks appear in two different colors, a light morph and a dark morph.

Light morphs are more common, and why the Ferruginous Hawk received its name. They have rust-colored upper parts extending to their legs, which are covered in rusty brown feathers.

Their heads and necks are pale and rufous as the color transitions to their underparts, forming a pale white “V” shape as it reaches their brown legs.

Chest and bellies may display brown speckles and scattered barring. The underside of their wings is white, and their wingtips are darker. Juvenile light morph hawks do not have rust-colored plumage and instead appear brown with a pale head, chest, and legs.

Dark morphs are much fewer and far between. Looking at their underside, you can quickly tell the difference between the morphs. The underside of a dark morph is chocolate brown.

The inner wing area is also brown, while the tail and flight feathers are white. Their heads and necks are darker brown and transition to a rusty color along their upper backs. Juvenile dark morphs are chocolate brown throughout their entire bodies.

The Ferruginous Hawk and the Rough-legged Hawk are the only two hawks with feathers that cover their legs and extend to their toes.

The Rough-legged Hawk is not as bulky as the Ferruginous Hawk and has dark patches at the wrist. The dark band across the end of the tail is an unmistakable feature to differentiate the birds from each other.

Where Does a Ferruginous Hawk Live: Habitat & Distribution

Ferruginous Hawk landing


Arid grasslands, prairies, foothills, and plateaus are the key habitats for this raptor. Ferruginous Hawks can be seen soaring over agricultural fields, ranches, and throughout the desert. They are not found at high elevations and steer clear of slim canyons, dense forests, and cliffs.


The Ferruginous Hawk is a resident of the North American continent. Its range extends from Canada through the western and central United States through the western half of Texas.


Ferruginous Hawks in northern climates migrate short to medium distances in search of warmer temperatures. They almost always avoid flying over the Rocky Mountains and opt to take grassland routes during their voyage from Alberta to Texas and northern Mexico.

Ferruginous Hawk Diet and Feeding

Ferruginous Hawk feeding


Like other raptors, the Ferruginous Hawk is a carnivorous murder machine with no problem sourcing small mammals, amphibians, birds, reptiles, and insects.

The majority of their diet is comprised of mammals and birds. Commonly unlucky mammals include rabbits, ground squirrels, pocket gophers, prairie dogs, and shrews.

When hunting birds, their usual victims are typically grouse, pheasant, partridge, ducks, owls, and magpies. The ferocious Ferruginous regularly snatches up a snake or two for lunch.

Hunting Tactics

Now that we know what’s on the menu let’s learn how the meal is acquired.

In their preferred grasslands and open country habitats, the Ferruginous Hawk sits atop a perch or soars overhead, scanning the ground for potential food. They are tactful hunters that adjust their hunting schedules to align with the schedule of their prey.

While perching and flying are the two standard hunting methods, they can be broken down into more specific strategies:

Perch & Wait: This strategy is typical of many birds and is a bit self-explanatory. It involves perching from an elevated position on a natural or man-made structure like a utility pole or fence post. The Ferruginous Hawk waits patiently until prey announces themselves, allowing the hawk to swoop down and deliver a harsh blow.

Ground Perching: Ground perching is a hardcore strategy that is my personal favorite. Once the burrow of prey is spotted from the sky or a perch, the Ferruginous Hawk will stealthily stake it out on foot. Standing at the entrance or overtop the burrow, the hawk waits for the prey to make their way to the surface.

The hawk pounces on the prey, sometimes when it’s still just beneath the surface. Those poor little burrow dwellers never see it coming.

As temperatures drop and hunting becomes more competitive, groups of 5 to 10 Ferruginous Hawks will gather in a prairie dog community.

As prairie dogs emerge, the hawks become defensive and protect their kill from bystanders by flapping their wings and lunging toward them. Other species of birds like Golden Eagles and Bald Eagles have been observed joining in on the action.

Low-level Flight: Scanning the ground for 40 to 60 feet above proves fruitful for Ferruginous Hawks looking for a meal. Their keen eyes and quick feet make this a go-to hunting method.

High-level Flight: High-level flight is a less successful tactic than soaring over grasslands and prairies. In the time it takes for the hawk to dive down, the prey has moved on or hidden.

Hovering: When hovering, birds fly into the wind with fast wingbeats to appear motionless as they drop atop their prey and make their kill. Hovering is typically performed in tandem with windy conditions. Luckily for the Ferruginous Hawk, it has chosen a relatively windy range.

Cooperative Hunting: Your partner probably prepares food for you often, and Ferruginous Hawks are no different. As I always say, four deadly talons are better than two! Mated pairs of Ferruginous Hawks will work together to fill their bellies.

Piracy: Piracy occurs when a Ferruginous Hawk sees a nearby hunter and uses it as an opportunity to steal the hunter’s yield as soon as they shoot it. The bird will swarm the kill and mantle it. This hunting tactic is typically observed in prairie dog hunting. Hawks are too intelligent, and humans are too predictable.


After successfully catching prey, if the deadly Ferruginous Hawk does not kill the animal when striking it, it will use its talons to pierce it. Other methods of delivering a swift death include using their sharp hooked bill to bite the neck or head.

The head of prey is consumed on the ground, and the remainder of the meal is flown to their nest. Larger prey may be torn into smaller pieces that are lighter and easier to carry.

Birds’ feathers are plucked before being consumed, and smaller mammals are eaten whole or torn into smaller chunks. Any indigestible components of the animal, like teeth, fur, and bones, are compacted into a pellet, similar to owls. The pellet is regurgitated, a process that usually occurs once per day.

Ferruginous Hawk Breeding

Ferruginous Hawk nest

The courtship ritual between hawks is beautiful. If you’ve been lucky enough to see it in real life, you had to have been as blown away as I was.

During the courtship display, a male and female Ferruginous Hawk soar through the sky with their wings held high above their backs. The male darts over the female, and they clasp talons before performing a cartwheel…in the sky…ATHLETES! The cherry on top of this mushy gushy love story is that the pair mates for life.

Breeding begins in the northernmost part of their range from late April until late June. Further south, breeding starts in mid-March and continues until mid-May. Copulation takes place before the nest-building process and occurs multiple times until the delivery of the first egg.

Ferruginous Hawk Nesting

Common nesting sites vary greatly based on availability. The species’ level of adaptability has led to a 1% increase in their population numbers from 1966 to 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

The pair chooses a nesting site together. Trees, cliffs, agricultural buildings, haystacks, shrubs, and banks are common nesting sites. If a tree or structure is the pair’s top choice, the nest is built at least 65 feet from the ground.

Either an old nest is revamped to become the home of their dreams, or the pair works together to create a nest from scratch.

The division of labor is relatively equal, which we all know is not always the case in birds. The male hawk collects nesting materials like sticks, branches, bones, and cattails. The female is responsible for turning these supplies into a tidy cup fit for her eggs 3 feet high and 3 feet wide.

Over one week, the base is constructed, and the nest is lined with bark, wood strips, grass, or cow poop. Not exactly that new home smell…

Ferruginous Hawk Eggs & Young

The average clutch size for the Ferruginous Hawk is one to eight white eggs with brown blotches. Clutch sizes of three to four eggs are the most common. The female spends the following 28 to 30 days incubating the eggs. Young are born with closed eyes and are covered in a ridiculously cute feathery down.

The number of nestling a pair of adults can successfully raise depends heavily on the food supply within the Ferruginous Hawks’ chosen territory.

Adults can raise three to four young in regions with a plentiful amount of small mammals. In areas with lower jackrabbits and prey populations, the average amount of fledglings is 50% lower than in areas with abundant prey.

After 38 to 50 days under the careful watch of their mother and father, the young fledge. Males fledge sooner, around day 40. Females take an additional ten days before fledging. This is due to the female’s larger body mass.

Although this accomplishment indicates independence, the young stick around for another month or two as their parents happily feed them.

At two years old, the juveniles can go on the search for a breeding partner and produce young of their own.

Ferruginous Hawk Population

The current global breeding population of Ferruginous Hawks is estimated to be around 110,000. They are rated 10 out of 20 on the Conservation Concern Score, which indicates the species as Low Concern. There are currently around 600 breeding pairs located in Idaho near the Snake River Plain.

Is the Ferruginous Hawk Endangered?

Although they are classified as a Low Concern species, the Ferruginous Hawk has faced periods where they were a Near Threatened species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and even endangered.

In 2008, an increase in population due to conservation efforts returned the species to one of Least Concern.

Factors that most threaten the Ferruginous Hawk are habitat loss, loss of nesting sites, dwindling numbers of healthy prairie dog towns, use of pesticides, agriculture expansion, and hunting.

Nest abandonment is common when a pair of breeding Ferruginous Hawks face a noisy environment and high activity levels near the nest. This creates a stressful daily life for the birds, and they will often not return. This issue is related to their population because if the pair cannot find a suitable area, they may not breed.

Do your part to protect raptors in your area. While we may not be able to solve the world’s problems, we can each do our part to conserve species that have existed for centuries. Even eliminating the use of pesticides is a crucial way to help raptors in your area. Every bit of effort counts!

Ferruginous Hawk Use in Falconry

Ferruginous Hawk

Falconry is an impressive art form and sport, but it requires tons of training and education to protect yourself and your chosen raptor from harm.

The Ferruginous Hawk has proven highly successful when used for falconry, but its immense power and size mean it is not recommended for beginners. These birds have aggressive personalities and are well-suited for expert falconers.

Ferruginous Hawk Predators

We learned about how the Ferruginous hawk uses piracy to steal prey from hunters and other birds, but the Bald Eagle will also use piracy against Ferruginous Hawks. While they are not a direct predator, they are fierce competitors, and the Ferruginous Hawk must remain diligent in protecting its territory against them.

Golden Eagles have been known to kill Ferruginous Hawks in disputes over territory, food, and nesting sites. This is the only known natural predator of the Ferruginous Hawk.

Ferruginous Hawk Lifespan

Ferruginous Hawks are highly self-sufficient predators, and this aids them greatly when it comes to their longevity.

Like all bird species, survival during the first year of life is not always easy. First-year mortality rates are gauged to be around 66%. Juveniles who exceed the survival odds will move on to adulthood with a 25% mortality rate.

The average lifespan in the wild is about five years old, although banded Ferruginous Hawks have survived 23 years in the wild.


Question: What is the World’s Largest Hawk?

Answer: The Ferruginous Hawk is the largest and most powerful of the Buteo genus. Their wingspan is roughly 4.7 feet. Their name Buteo regalis indicates their true majesty.

Question: Do Ferruginous Hawk live in America?

Answer: Yes. The Ferruginous Hawk is native to North America. They live in deserts, prairies, open country, and grasslands across the western United States and southwestern Canada. Some migrate to northern Mexico for the winter.

Question: What Hawk has the Largest Wingspan?

Answer: The Ferruginous Hawk has the largest wingspan of any hawk! Find them throughout the western United States, southwestern Canada, and northern Mexico.

Question: What is the Biggest Animal a Hawk can Pick Up?

Answer: Hawks can carry animals that have a lesser or equal weight. The Ferruginous Hawk’s weight varies based on gender and age but ranges from 2.2 to 4.5 pounds. This means a Ferruginous Hawk can carry prey weighing one to three pounds but reach four pounds.

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