Swainson's Hawk photo by Jon Christopher Meyers

Swainson’s Hawk

This is a large, slender hawk of the western plains. The Swainson's Hawk is close in size and shape to the more common Red-tailed Hawk, but has longer, narrower, more pointed wings, and a smaller bill and feet. Three subgroups have been defined by color, and the light form is the most common. These birds have a dark brown head with brown eyes, and dark brown upper parts. A wide brown band on the chest contrasts with a white throat and pale belly. The underside of the wings show white wing linings, contrasting with darkly barred flight feathers, and even darker trailing edges; the tail is gray with many narrow bands, and one wide dark band near the tip. The rufous form of this hawk has a reddish belly, and the dark form is dark overall, with a dark throat - these two subgroups account for less than 10% of the total.


Meet our resident Swainson's Hawks:

Guapo, a Swainson's Hawk, was found in Gold Beach, on the southern coast of Oregon, in early October 2016, as a first-year bird. Besides being totally outside the normal range of a Swainson's Hawk, he was landing on people's arms and accosting them for food -- clearly he had been illegally hand-raised. Swainson's Hawks migrate from the interior West of Canada and the US, where they breed, to the Las Pampas region of Argentina each year. In Argentina, they are known as the Grasshopper Hawk, as grasshoppers are their primary prey in this rich grassland. Guapo is very curious, loves to sunbathe and has been endearing himself to everyone!

Adoptive "Parents" of Guapo:
Bill Sharp  •  Rashawn Knapp  •  Amanda Silha & Robert Wrenn  •  Henry  •  The Schler Family
Sally & Melissa Randich  •  David & Linda Wyckoff  •  Julie & Sophie

Taka, male based on size, was an adult when he was brought to UC Davis Veterinary School's raptor center in September 2001. He had an open fracture of the right wrist and possible pelvic fracture. Having been found by a citizen alongside a road, it was originally thought that he was hit by car, however x-rays revealed that he had been shot. After medical care and rehabilitation, his wing did not heal with sufficient extension to enable him to fly well enough for hunting or migration. After spending time with another education program in California, Taka joined the Cascades Raptor Center's Education Team in April 2003. He is an avid nest builder in the spring and summer. However, he is always ready to take a break from building to meet visitors. The word Taka is Japanese for “hawk”. 

Adoptive "Parents" of Taka:
The Voth Family  •  Richard Taylor  •  Tom & Kathleen Valdes  •  Steve & Debbie White


Scientific Name

Buteo swainsoni


Length: 17 - 22"

Wing Span: 47 - 54"

Weight: 1.3 - 2.7 lb. 


State and federally protected. A species of concern, recent sharp population declines led to satellite telemetry projects and confirmation of huge die-offs due to use of the pesticide monocrotophos on the wintering grounds in Las Pampas, Argentina (where they are known as the 'grasshopper hawk' due to the huge number of grasshoppers they eat). Assistance from Canada and the US has led to the banning of the pesticide and an extensive educational effort for farmers to find effective alternatives less harmful to human and avian health. 


Open country of the western US and Canada for breeding, from low to moderate elevations. Prairies, rangelands, meadows, any open areas with scattered trees -- such places will be attractive to this species. Cultivated lands attract this hawk in some areas, where the human disturbance of agriculture causes concentrations of insects and rodents. 


Rodents and other small mammals form the bulk of the diet during breeding season; insects are an important part of the diet at other times of the year, especially crickets and grasshoppers. These hawks also take some reptiles and amphibians, and are even attracted to swarms of bats. Depending on the type of prey, they will perch hunt, or hunt on the wing. 


The Swainson's Hawk is usually quiet outside of nesting season. The typical call is a shrill, plaintive kr-e-e-e-e-e-e-e. 


Build a stick nest as high as possible on a cliff, bluff, or rock outcrop, or in a lone tree. They often return to the same nest each year, which can be up to 3 or 4 feet across. 

Most Common Problems

Collision with vehicles is the most common problem here. While migrating in large, insect-seeking flocks through Central and South America, this hawk is very susceptible to mass poisonings from insecticides.

Range Map

The Swainson's Hawk makes one of the longest, most spectacular fall migration flights of any North American bird species. From its breeding range throughout the western US, Canada, and Alaska, this gregarious hawk can gather into flocks of up to several thousand birds for a long mass migration to its wintering range in Argentina and parts of South America. They make the return journey back to North America in early spring. Small populations of these hawks also winter in Florida, and the Central Valley of California.



Special Thanks for range maps:

Dan Gleason
BGleason Design & Illustration
Commercial & Scientific Illustration, Graphic Design
CraneDance Communications
Book Production/Design