Brown rough-legged hawk perched on branch against blue sky.
Rough-legged hawk Its feathered legs help to identify this raptor. © Jeff Timmons

Stories in Indiana

Indiana Nature Notes for February

Alyssa Nyberg Restoration Ecologist


A Getting Warmed Up with the Rough-legged Hawk

My ninety-year-old neighbor used to tell me that he was going out fishing… not catching, but fishing. It’s about the experience, he’d tell me. And that is how it is with me and birding… it’s about the experience. Attempting to see some birds—sometimes being able to watch and identify them, and sometimes not. It’s not always easy, especially when the birds are small! So, when I am feeling like having some birding success, I often set my sights on the larger birds.

Should you visit Kankakee Sands in February, you'll probably get to see one of our larger prairie birds—the rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus). With a wingspan of 53 inches, there is a good chance you’ll notice it when it is soaring overhead!

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Come on out to find the rough-legged hawk!

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But how will you know that the bird perched on the fenceposts around the bison pasture, or hunting from a small oak tree growing in the prairie, or soaring overheard, is indeed a rough-legged hawk?

That is where the bird watching part comes in. Taking note of identification markings and bird behavior can help you to decide just which bird it is that you are looking at. For example, when a rough-legged hawk is in flight, you will be able to see that its longs wings do not taper to a point, as a falcon’s wings do. Instead, their wings are broad and wide at the tip. Notice the tail for another clue—the tail of a rough-legged will be broad and fan-shaped.

The rough-legged hawk was named for the feathers on its legs, which give the legs a rough look. Most birds do not have feathers on their legs. Think about those long-legged flamingos, majestic bald eagles, and even the tiny chickadees—all with smooth, featherless legs.

If the bird is perched, are you seeing a small beak and the feathered legs? If soaring, does it hold its long broad wings mostly horizontal in a light upward v-shape (known as a dihedral)? Watch for the flapping of the wings: is it shallow and smooth, lazing and loping? Is the bird solitary and hunting alone? Does the bird stop in mid-flight to hover, flapping its wings rapidly to stay in one place, and then diving down to pounce feet first upon its prey? More clues that you’re witnessing a rough-legged hawk.  

Rough-legged hawk in flight against cloudless blue sky.
Rough-legged hawk identification The rough-legged hawk will hold its long broad wings mostly horizontal in a light upward v-shape. © Shari McCollough

Rough-legged hawks can be confused with the other large bird of prey that spend winters at Kankakee Sands, so focus your attention on the tail. Like the rough-legged hawk, the red-tailed hawk also has a broad fan-shaped tail, but its tail will also have red feathers, most easily seen when in flight, which rough-leggeds don’t have. Northern harriers will have a white rump band at the base of their long, narrow tail.

The call of the rough-legged hawk won’t offer much help when it comes to identification unfortunately. Though its two-second, cat-like meow call is very unique, it is rarely heard. Like most hawks, rough-legged hawks seldom vocalize outside of breeding and nesting season. The exceptions are the hungry young nestlings and juveniles which call loudly and often to their parents for more and more food. The squeaky birds get the voles!

Sometimes bird behaviors, like those listed above, can be much better clues to the identity of a bird than the actual feather markings and coloration. This is especially true for birds like the rough-legged hawk who exhibit polymorphism, in which different birds of the same species exhibit variations in their feathers or plumage. In the case of the rough-legged hawk, there is a light form (or morph) and a dark morph. If a rough-legged hawk is patterned in the light morph form, it will be mottled brown all over, have a pale brown head, a dark belly patch, and the undersides of the wings will be white with small dark spots at the bend or elbow of the wing. In the dark morph form, the rough-legged hawk will be covered from head to toe, in dark brown feathers, the only exception being a band of white feathers along the outer edge of the underside of the wings and tail. At Kankakee Sands we typically see the light morph form, but the dark morph form also is present, so stay sharp!

Rough-legged hawks spend summer months in the Arctic tundra of Alaska and Canada, where they nest on cliff edges, raise their young and feed on voles, lemmings, ground squirrels, hares and small birds. They winter all across southern Canada and the northern US in open areas such as prairies, marshes, fields, bogs and dunes looking for mice, voles and shrews.

Group of birders with binoculars to their faces look at the camera.
Birding at Kankakee Sands Thanks to the 8,000 acres of planted prairie and wetland acres here in Newton County, there are almost always birds to be seen! © Alyssa Nyberg/TNC

Kankakee Sands is open for birding any time of the year, and thanks to the 8,000 acres of planted prairie and wetland acres here, there are almost always birds to be seen!  In the winter, it’s highly likely that you’ll see rough-legged hawks, red-tailed hawks and northern harriers during the day, and short-eared owls at dawn and dusk. In the spring, you can delight in many migrating birds in bright breeding plumage singing for a mate. Summer is the time for nesting and feeding, and then fall, the birds again migrate.

You can bird from your car, from a parking area, or from one of the trails we have at Kankakee Sands. If you are new to birding and would feel more at ease with a birding buddy, reach out! We have staff and volunteers who are able to take small group of visitors for birding. At our Kankakee Sands office, we have bird identification books and binoculars that can be borrowed, too.

There are so many other natural spaces and places to bird in Indiana, and all around the world! Birdability is a fantastic resource for those wanting to do more birding. Birdability’s tagline is “because birding is for everybody!”, and it’s true! Their vision is that birding is “for everybody and every body, regardless of disability or other health concerns.” The Birdability website has crowdsourced maps for birding locations all across the globe that describe in detail the accessibility of each location so that a person knows what to expect when arriving and will hopefully feel more comfortable and prepared to get out there and get birding!

Indiana Audubon reports that 413 species of birds have been documented in Indiana and of those, 247 species have been documented at Kankakee Sands. With all those bird species utilizing the planted prairies and wetlands here, a birding adventure surely awaits you! Come on out to Kankakee Sands this February and get your birding skills warmed up with the rough-legged hawk. It’s going to be a great year for you and birding, I just know it! 

Nature Notes for January

A Visit from a Good Luck Sparrow

December and January are ‘a visiting time’—a time to escape the chill of winter and explore new spaces in far-away places, or to travel to see friends and family in old familiar haunts and catch up on the year that was. It’s also a visiting time for sparrows, and my grandfather always told me that a visit from a sparrow is good luck!

Many of our Indiana summertime sparrows—the Henslow’s sparrow, grassland sparrow, and chipping sparrow—have recently left Kankakee Sands to migrate south for the winter. But another sparrow has just arrived—the American tree sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)—and it is here to stay for the next several months.

Small brownish American tree sparrow perched on snowy branch in winter.
American Tree Sparrow An American tree sparrow at Kankakee Sands. © Kathy Malone

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Come on out to find the American tree sparrow!

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American tree sparrows spend the summer way up in Alaska and Northern Canada’s transition zone where willow, alder, spruce and birch grow at the edge of the open tundra. (Gosh that must be pretty. Wouldn’t it be nice to visit there one day?) In the late fall, the American tree sparrows migrate south to southern Canada and northern United States of America where they take up temporary winter residence in transitional areas with trees and shrubs at the edge of open land—brushy roadsides, woodland edges, shrubby fields, marshes and wetlands.

And they have come to eat! Here in Indiana and in other areas of their winter range, American tree sparrows are able to find seeds and berries in more abundance than in their summertime habitat at this time of the year.

American tree sparrows easily fall into the category of LBB—Little Brown Birds. Without binoculars, it can be a challenge to distinguish which species the little brown ball of feathers might be. Many of the sparrows that we see in Indiana are in the four to six-inch range and mottled with brown feathers. So how can we distinguish the American tree sparrow from other sparrows that winter here like the white-throated sparrow, the song sparrow and the introduced-from-Europe house sparrow?

If you can get a good view of the American tree sparrow, you’ll see that in addition to being little and brown, it has a cap of red feathers on its head, a grey face and a red eye-streak, which a few other sparrows also have. But its most striking feature is its bicolored beak: the upper bill—the maxillary beak—is dark in color, and the lower bill—the mandibular beak—is yellow. And on its buff-colored, un-streaked breast is a small dark spot of feathers. Put it all together and you have yourself an American tree sparrow!

Should you not be able to see the bird well enough to note the field markings, maybe your ear will catch the song of the males sung from a perch and described by Cornell’s All About Birds website as a series of high sweet sounding whistled notes sweet, sweet, todiddle dittle di that fall in pitch as the notes are sung. When feeding and foraging, you’ll often hear a musical “teedle-eet” from members of the flock to one another.

Tree sparrows are ground feeders, foraging most of their food from the ground. In fall and spring, they feed mostly on the seeds of grass, sedges and wildflowers as well as berries, catkins and insects. During the summer, when rearing chicks, they feed more extensively on protein-rich insects: caterpillars, beetles, flies, moths and spiders. During the winter, the American tree sparrow will dine on seeds and berries in natural places, and even come into backyards with landscaping plants still standing and with birdfeeders that have dropped small seeds to the ground.

My what entertaining eaters they are! They excel at removing the seeds and berries still attached to the plants by jumping, hopping and slapping the seeds with their wings, and then scrapping the ground with their feet before eating them up.

In addition to being a ground feeder, American tree sparrows are also ground nesters. In the summer months when they are in their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska, they create small open cup nests made of grasses, moss and twigs which they line with feathers and fine grasses. They build their nests in grass clumps at the base of shrubs for protection to hold the four to six pale blue, red-specked eggs and raise their young.

With all the time that the American tree sparrow spends on the ground eating and nesting, their name is rather misleading as they don’t spend much time in trees at all. Like most of us, they did not choose their own name! American tree sparrows were named by European colonists who came to America and thought they resembled the European tree sparrow. If I were to rename it, I might call it the cute busy bicolored beak bird. But now I’m wondering what name the American tree sparrow might give itself?

Partners in Flight estimates that there are approximately 26 million American tree sparrows in the world today, which seems like a lot. However, they are included in the listing of Common Birds in Steep Decline due to a decrease in number by 53% between 1970 and 2014. The causes of the decline are not well understood but could have to do with the sparrow’s disappearing winter habitat of meadows and wetlands that are converted to agricultural lands and residential or commercial areas.

Remember that American tree sparrows frequent backyards, so you can help this little brown bird by planting native plants in your own landscapings and leaving the stems standing until spring for the birds to glean the seeds, and by planting native shrubs and trees in your yard that provide winter berries, like serviceberry, elderberry and sumac.

This winter, as you visit new places or are visited by friends and family, grab those binoculars and head out for a walk or drive, or simply enjoy sitting by the window looking out to see if the American tree sparrow might also be visiting you. If they are, you’re in luck!

Alyssa Nyberg is restoration ecologist for The Nature Conservancy's Kankakee Sands project in Newton County, Indiana.