558 N. Main St., Prineville, OR 97754 | (541) 447-6205
A ferruginous hawk in its Central Oregon habitat.
I saw a ferruginous hawk the other day and it brought back some memories of long ago.
A raptor of the open country of the West, the ferruginous hawk is the largest American hawk. It has a wingspan of 52 to 55 inches and weighs up to 4 ˝ pounds. The tail is white, or light gray, its head is mostly white and its back and shoulders are rufous. When seen from below, the hawk looks mostly white and its rufous legs form a dark V.
The ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis) has been identified as a species of conservation need in many western states, yet has received little attention in the form of coordinated inventory and monitoring efforts relative to other raptor species.
The rough-legged hawk, the golden eagle, and the ferruginous hawk are the only American hawks to have legs feathered all the way to their toes. They prey primarily on ground squirrels, jackrabbits, pocket gophers, and prairie dogs. They will also feed on snakes and other small animals such as lizards.
Their nests are generally located in juniper trees, on the ground, on rock outcrops or cliff faces, or on utility towers or nest platforms. The male collects nesting material and the female arranges it in the nest. Ferruginous hawk nests historically included bison bones and were lined with bison dung and hair. Now they are made mostly of sticks and lined with a variety of material, including cow dung. Nests are often reused and added to from year to year.
The female incubates the two to four eggs for 32 to 33 days. The male brings food to the female and occasionally helps incubate the eggs. The female broods the young for about three weeks. During this time, the male brings food to the nest and the female tears it up and feeds it to the young. The young begin to fly at 40 to 50 days.
In 1995, I conducted a study on ferruginous hawks while working for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources out of Cedar City, Utah. This was the first project of its kind in southwestern Utah. I visited 55 nest locations and found 40 of them to be active. Of those territories, 33 produced young. A total of 77 young came out to 2.3 young per successful nest. A nesting chronology was established for each site including egg-laying, hatching, and fledging.
During the study, I got to see a lot of interesting country, some wide open spaces, and a variety of birds. Some nest sites were miles from any paved roads or people. I drove a Bronco that was at least 10 years old at the time, which occasionally suffered from a bad case of having too many hard miles on it.
There were the usual flat tires, high-centering, and getting stuck, but one of my most memorable experiences with the Bronco occurred out in the middle of nowhere (somewhere in the west desert near the Nevada border).
I was driving down a seldom-used, two-track road that had some high, dead grass in the middle when I smelled smoke. Now, who could be burning out here, I thought. Then it hit me — I was. When I got out and looked under the vehicle, I could actually see fire. All that dead grass got stuffed up against the entire exhaust system. Good thing the fire extinguisher worked.
About a half-hour later, I smelled smoke again. After another round of extinguishing some flames, I crawled under the Bronco and tried to dig out some of the jammed-in grass and weeds. Of course, as I drove, more grass would find its way to the vacated location of the grass I just got out. I had to repeat this process three or four more times until I hit pavement.
My one chance at handling a ferruginous hawk occurred when I got a call to retrieve an injured bird at a nearby ranch. Along with the hawk was an injured great-horned owl. The rancher’s wife had been taking care of the birds for a few days and told me the hawk had a mean streak while the owl was docile. I went for the hawk first, which occupied a totally closed-in dog pen.
A ferruginous hawk is a pretty good-size bird, the largest of all the hawks I reminded myself. I entered, sheet in hand, prepared for a round of cage fighting or bullfighting. The hawk glared at me with penetrating yellow eyes. It took a step back and I saw my chance, tossing the sheet over it. I wore a heavy jacket and thick gloves for my own protection. After all, I didn’t want someone rescuing an injured state worker. Without any mishap, I quickly got the hawk into our little cage.
No problem. If that bird was supposed to be the meaner of the two, then I figured I could probably get the owl to land on my arm like a trained falconer.
The owl’s temporary quarters the last few days had been an eight-horse trailer. As I entered from the back, I could see him all the way up in the front, and he looked anything but docile and happy to see me. I should have brought the sheet in with me, but figured I could just pick him up and put him in the box. As I reached to pick him up, he flew toward the open door.
I could tell the owl tasted freedom and was about to make a final dash for the opening. I quickly got there and grabbed him before he flew out, but not before he got one of his talons between my glove and wool jacket. I finally got him in a big cardboard box then examined my wound. It was a deeper puncture than I first thought and it just missed a big vein.
With two injured birds and one injured wildlife technician loaded in the truck, we returned to the office and got the birds in our holding pens. I never had any major after-effects, but have an L-shaped scar on my wrist as a reminder of that day with the two raptors.
Want to know more about hawks?
For those who want to learn more about this majestic hawk, the High Desert Museum is sponsoring a presentation titled “Ferruginous Hawk Natural History and Conservation in the High Desert.” The speaker is educator, research biologist, and author Dr. Leon Powers, a recognized authority on the ferruginous hawk. He will be presenting his research on the ferruginous hawk and its conservation status in the High Desert region.
The free lecture will be held Monday, May 13, at McMenamins Old St. Francis School, in Bend, at 7p.m.