The Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) breeds throughout most of temperate and the more southern parts of the boreal regions of North America, as well as in the West Indies, where there are five different island or archipelago-specific subspecies, all endemic and non-migratory. Northern birds winter as far south as central South America. In fact, the northern birds are noteworthy here in Ontario and much of eastern North America for their spectacular southward migration – that is, if you know when and where to look. Massive numbers can pass by in a single day in the autumn, but usually (not always) rather high up, slowly circling, wings outspread, to catch thermals, or updrafts, that allow them to fly with minimum energy expenditure. Updrafts are like large bubbles of rising, warmer air. The birds start near the top and circle around the invisible bubble. Actually they are going down as the air goes up, so they may rise, slowly descend or stay at a pretty much the same altitude until reaching the bottom of the bubble at which point they soar to the next one. While they obviously detect the upward movement of warmed air they also know where such thermals are by seeing other hawks, eagles and vultures taking advantage of them. Thus, they actually fly many times further than the distance they cover from start to end, but with far less energy used than if they went “as the crow flies” in a straight line.
I have had people tell me they have never seen a Broad-winged Hawk on days and in places where I have seen hundreds. One has to be attune to looking for them, and a good pair of binoculars certainly helps to enjoy the sight.
These flocks, some numbering in the thousands, may include various other birds of prey, including other members of the genus, Buteo, all having broad wings and rounded tails, along with other birds of prey, and vultures. It can be fun to try to identify the various species, and keeping track of numbers over the years is an important “citizen science” project that can determine trends in population sizes. Such “hawk watches” can turn into enjoyable social gatherings in places where the topography enhances the occurrence of updrafts, such as Hawk Cliff, Lake Erie, here in Ontario, Hawk Mountain, in Pennsylvania, Hawk Ridge in Minnesota and the River of Raptors in Mexico.
These are smallish, chunky hawks with relatively short tails. I have shown an adult, which is somewhat barred underneath, with the bars tending to coalesce across the upper breast, although typical of hawks, there is a great deal of individual variation. Immature birds are streaked on the breast and can be a little tricky to distinguish from the young of other members of the genus, Buteo. Broad-wing adults weigh about 265 to 560 grams, or approximately 9.3 to nearly 20 ounces. Most are light morphs, but there is a rare dark morph that can be an all-over dark sooty-chocolate brownish color but with the same underwing and tail patterning as the typical pale morph.
Food consists of pretty well any small vertebrates they can capture, as well as large invertebrates, including insects, worms, and crabs, but small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians make up most of the diet. Driving through “cottage country”, in the Precambrian shield country of central Ontario, this hawk can often be seen perched on telephone wires, along the road’s edge, patiently waiting for prey. This painting is approximately life-size in oils on a birch panel. I have also included a small preliminary study I did very many years ago, in acrylics on illustration board.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731