College of Veterinary Medicine |

Healthy Animals, Healthy People, Healthy Planet


Dalton is a female Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) who was brought to us in March of 2003 after sustaining gunshot wounds to her right wing. Part of her wing was removed by the individual who found her as it was barley attached any longer. She lost her primary feathers and can no longer fly. Dalton was DNA-sexed and we discovered that she was not male as we had originally thought. Even though her name may be confusing, we will keep her name as Dalton.
Rough-legged Hawks are so named because their legs are feathered down to their feet, whereas most hawks have bare legs. This feathering is thought to be an adaptation to cold environments. In the winter, they will migrate down from Alaska and Canada into Washington and other areas of the northern United States. They are similar in size to the Red-tailed Hawks but their coloring is more varied ranging from very light to almost black.  Most birds have a light head and chest and a white tail with a dark terminal band.  Black wrist patches make them easy to identify in flight. About 10 % of the Rough-legged Hawk population are dark (called dark morphs). They can still be identified by their tail.
It is thought by some that male and female Rough-legged Hawks can be identified by appearance (known as “sexual dimorphism”). The idea is that males wear a single broad band on their tail (with some males having small bands too), and the females have multiple broad bands on their tails.
Rough-legged Hawks are considered soaring hawks, or Buteos, and they will hunt by hovering or circling over open fields or tundra, or from tall perches like telephone poles or snags. Their diets primarily consist of lemmings when in their northern habitat, but they will also eat other small rodents and birds. Their feet are quite small when compared to those of Red-tailed Hawks which indicates that they are adapted to smaller prey.

Washington State University