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Swainson's Hawk (Buteo swainsoni)

The life cycle of the Swainson’s Hawk provides an excellent illustration of the importance of a hemispheric perspective on bird conservation.

Length: 19 inches

Wingspan: 51 inches

Weight: 1.9 pounds (855 grams)

AOU code: SWHA

By Andy McCormick

Swainson's Hawk, by Raymond ParsonsUsing the Central and Pacific flyways, this western North America species makes an annual roundtrip migration of about 12,000 miles to and from southern South America and the Argentine pampas.

These hawks gather with Broad-winged Hawks and Turkey Vultures along high altitude “streets” of thermals in a massive southbound migration during the North American fall. Then they spend the austral summer feeding on grasshoppers and dragonflies (Bechard, et al).

Photo: Swainson's Hawk, by Raymond Parsons

Beleaguered Buteo

Although Swainson’s Hawks make their diet of insects, farmers in the past have tried to shoot as many Swainson’s Hawks as they could. Poisoning with pesticides was the method of choice in Argentina, where thousands of these hawks were killed in the mid-1990s.

Once one of the most common birds in our western plains states, Swainson’s Hawks have lost much of their historical habitat as it has been converted to farmland. Some estimates indicate a population loss of 90 percent from the bird’s historical level.

Adaptation and Protection

However, the Swainson’s Hawks have proven to be adaptable to agriculture and they are now comfortable in alfalfa and corn fields. The pesticides that killed so many have been banned, but there is still spraying at times (Bechard, et al). Current population numbers range from 200,000 to 400,000.

Aves Argentinas has worked to have the pampas declared an Important Bird Area. In Brazil, Lagoa de Peixe has been established as a national park, thanks to the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources. These South American agencies have worked with Partners in Flight and the Nature Conservancy to protect grassland habitat on both continents in the hemisphere (Wells).

A Model Buzzard

The Swainson’s Hawk is in the genus Buteo, Latin for hawk (Holloway). Buteos are called “buzzards” in much of the world except North America (Alderfer). They are large hawks that soar on broad, rounded wings and in general make their diet out of rodents and other small mammals, snakes, lizards, and sometimes other birds.

Swainson’s Hawk is named for William Swainson, a British naturalist and artist, who was for a time the Assistant Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum. He is an unsung natural history artist despite being an innovative and skillful one who published more books than Thomas Bewick, Alexander Wilson, and John James Audubon combined (Mearns & Mearns).

Swainson’s Hawks have lovely two-toned plumage, with the flight feathers darker than the wing linings (coverts). Seen from below, the light-morph form has a dark head, often with gray cheeks and white throat. The chest is dark and forms a bib (Alderfer). The belly can be white or streaked. These hawks also have an intermediate or rufous form which has plain or lightly streaked rufous color on the chest and belly. The dark morph is dark all over. You can see a “classic” light-morph Swainson’s Hawk soaring on video at the Macaulay Library.

Nesting Neighbor

Swainson’s Hawks arrive on their breeding grounds in Washington by late April. The nest is often built on an old magpie nest. Usually two to three dull white eggs with brown spots are deposited and incubated by the female for a little longer than a month.

The Swainson’s diet changes to small mammals and reptiles while feeding the young. Juveniles can fly in about six weeks but stay with the adults until fall migration.

References available upon request from Andy McCormick,

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