Lake Milton Raptor Center

Swainson's Hawk

Buteo swainsoni
Swainson Hawk
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Falconiformes
  • Family: Accipitridae
  • Genus: Buteo
  • Species: Buteo swainsoni
  • Geographic Range

    The Swainson's Hawk, -Buteo swainsoni-, spends most of the year in the western United States extending into southwest Canada and south to west Texas. In the winter months, these birds migrate over Central America to the La Pampas region of Argentina.


    This hawk prefers open grasslands and desert-like habitats. It is common to see this hawk perched on a fence post in a prairie or open range. The Swainson's Hawk also inhabits agricultural areas, and is known to follow farmer's tractors in search of insect or rodent prey.

    Physical Description

    This hawk's most unique feature is its variation in color. The light color morph includes white patches on the forehead, the throat and the belly. The rest of the body is a dark brown. The dark color morph, which is the less common type, includes an entirely dark brown body with only a white patch under the tail. Other variations between these two distinct extremes have been observed. These hawks vary in length from 19 to 22 inches, and have a wingspan of 47 to 57 inches. An average weight for a male is 1.8 pounds, while the average for the female is almost 2.5 pounds. This bird is commonly confused with a Red-tailed hawk, but the Swainson's Hawk has a longer wingspan, more variation in color, and flies in a slight dihedral pattern.


    The Swainson's Hawk starts the breeding season by building nests in March and April. The nest are usually found in trees, shrubs, on the ground, or on top of utility poles. These hawks are mostly mongamous, so a breeding pair may return to a previous nesting site. These birds become highly territorial towards their nest and their mate during this time of the year. When the nest is complete, the female lays 2 to 4 whitish-colored eggs with brown flecks. The male usually helps the female with the incubation, which lasts for about 30 days. The young hatch between March and July, and stay in the nest for another 30 days. While most juveniles migrate the following winter with their parents, there are some groups that do not migrate their first winter.


    During the mating season, the Swainson's Hawk stays with its mate, and is highly territorial toward all other hawks. For the rest of the year, this hawk can live peacefully among other Swainson's Hawks and other birds in general. These birds are also known to form flocks of up to 100 during migration and the winter months, and communal roosts of thousands of these hawks have been documented in Argentina.

    Food Habits

    The Swainson's Hawk is somewhat of a generalist, and eats whatever it can find. During its time in North America, its diet consists of insects, small mammals and birds, and occasional reptiles and amphibians. When these birds migrate to the Argentina area, they feed mainly on insects like grasshoppers and crickets.

    Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

    The Swainson's Hawk is of special importance to farmers, both in North and South America. Some Swainson's Hawks will live entirely on insects and rodents that it catches in crop fields, thus alleviating some crop destruction for farmers. This species is also important to scientists as they can study the ecological details of its massive migration of over 5,000 miles.

    Conservation Status

    This species of hawk is on the list of Federal Species of Concern, and is also considered threatened by the state of California. The primary cause of this concern is the massive killing of more than 20,000 Swainson's Hawks by pesticides used in the Argentina agricultural areas. In order to help these hawks recover, the use of deadly pesticides by Argentinian farmers must be stopped. Although the farmers are in support of saving the birds, this recovery effort is proving to be a daunting task.