Broad-winged hawk adults have rusty bars on the breast, dark brown upperparts, and a tail with broad, equal-width white and black bands. In flight this small buteo has pointed wing tips and a broad black border to the trailing edge of the pale wings. Immature birds are brown above and streaked below with mostly white on the center underparts. Call is a two-parted whistle, so high-pitched you might not think it’s a hawk’s voice: kih-keee.
Similar species: Six hawks in genus Buteo occur in Missouri. Red-shouldered hawks are larger, with longer necks, wings, and tails; slenderer, less brown, without rusty bars on the breast. Seen from below in flight, the wings have many dark bars, and the black border on the trailing edge is narrower than in the broad-winged hawk. Also, there is a “window” (a crescent or rounded pale patch) toward the end of each extended wing, at the base of the primary feathers. Red-tailed hawks are very common year-long but are much larger, with a pale chest broken by a band of dark streaks across the belly, and an orange tail.
Length: 16 inches; wingspan: 33 inches.
Statewide, but mostly in forested areas such as the Ozarks.
Habitat and Conservation
During the last week of April and the third week of September, large flights (“kettles”) of migrating broad-winged hawks may pass through the state. In the evenings, they settle as a group in forested areas to spend the night. Between 8 and 10 the next morning, they lift off in mass and begin to climb on warm, rising air currents (“thermals”). Up to 500 and even 1,000 individuals have been observed in these kettles — a spectacular sight! To find them in the summer, visit an Ozark forest and listen for its high, two-noted whistle—you may spy one as it circles above the trees.
Forages on small mammals, nestling birds, and insects. This species, like our two other common buteos (the red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks), usually forage from a perch or by soaring overhead. They sit on telephone poles, fence posts, or tree branches and watch for movement on the ground. Once they see their prey, they dive directly onto it or glide in from the side. Because buteos are less agile than accipiters (such as Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks), their diet includes a smaller percentage of birds.
As migrant, common statewide, especially in forested regions. As summer breeding resident, uncommon in the Ozark and Ozark Border regions, with scattered nesting records elsewhere in the state; rare in the north.
Nests are built near forest openings far from human disturbance, often near water. Nests are positioned low in the tree, often in the lowest main crotch, and are made of sticks and other primarily plant materials. A clutch comprises 1–5 eggs, which are incubated about a month. After hatching, the young stay in the nest for about 40 days. There is only 1 brood a year. Broad-winged hawks are present in Missouri April–October. Then they travel in large flocks to spend winter in Central and South American forests, a journey of about 4,000 miles, reached at a rate of about 70 miles per day. The oldest broad-winged hawk on record lived for at least 18 years.
The sight of hundreds or thousands of hawks circling together on thermals evokes the idea that they are in a large soup pot being stirred by a huge spoon — hence the term “kettle” for such flocks. When people see spectacular things, they often find odd but perfectly apt metaphors to describe them.
In the United States, the dissection of large unbroken tracts of forest by human homes, roads, and other development could pose problems for this and other species that nest far away from people. In this hawk’s South American wintering range, forest destruction poses a serious threat, as does hunting.