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Swainsons Hawk

Fire, Swainsons hawk

Fire, a female, was shot in Utah, and later survived West Nile virus
Photos by Steve Hall


Swainson's Hawk
    Buteo Swainsoni
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Accipitiridae
Genus: Buteo

   
       A medium sized
buteo from western North America, named for 19th century British naturalist William Swainson, immature Swainson's are often mistaken for young red tails.  However, they are smaller, their wings are proportionally slightly longer, more slender and more pointed than the red tail’s, and they fly with their wings in a slight dihedral, tipping back and forth while soaring. The Swainson's talons are also smaller than the red-tail's.

      Swainson's hawks gather in groups called kettles, to make the longest migration of any hawk, up to 17,000 miles round trip from Canada to the Pampas of Argentina. They have an efficient migration method, soaring up on warm thermal currents, gliding gradually down to the next thermal, gaining considerable speed, and then beginning the process again.  As soaring and gliding take very little energy, it is truly the lazy bird’s key to migration. Since the migrating Swainson's tend to group up, head towards, and follow the land bridge of Panama on their way south, these birds can be seen in flocks numbering in the thousands. Radio telemetry and banding have greatly enhanced our knowledge of the Swainson's migration specifically, and their movements generally.


    The
Swainson's hawk eats more insects than other buteos do, often grabbing them on the wing, principally grasshoppers, crickets, dragonflies and locusts, and is sometimes called the grasshopper hawk. Insects make up almost of their diet in their Winter habitats.  The Swainson's diet requires more nutritious foods while nesting and feeding their young, so  they add rodents, rabbits and reptiles while on the American and Canadian deserts, grasslands and praries, and have been known to stand in groups at the mouths of ground squirrel burrows and grab squirrels as they emerge. Swainsons defend Spring and Summer territories of about two square miles, not only against other Swainsons, but sometimes against Red-Tailed Hawks and Ferruginous Hawks.

Swainson's nest in trees, shrubs and on cliff edges, so the continuing conversion of the Plains habitat to grazing land, alfalfa and wheat (which affords cover to their prey), combined with the destruction of the few sparse trees by cattle continually rubbing against their trunks, and converting the areas around the tree's base to muddy wallows, have made locating suitable nesting sites more challenging.
Swainsons arrive at the nesting grounds in March and April, and spend a week or so building their nests. Nests are constructed of twigs and sticks, and from the one to four eggs laid a few days apart, chicks emerge with a similar time gap, with the result that older chicks are larger and more likely to survive by appropriating more of the rodents adults bring to the nest and shred for the chicks.

  The Swainson's hawk is vulnerable to pesticide poisoning in its wintering grounds on the Pampas in Argentina, where it feeds on grasshoppers, and where pesticides, such as DDT,  long since banned in the United States are still used.  As the birds roost and hunt together in huge flocks in Winter, they are sometimes inadvertently blanketed by the aerial pesticide spraying, causing mass die-offs, including two severe seasons in 1995 and 1996 when thousands of Swainsons died. In an encouraging development, Argentine farmers and Ciba Geigy, a manufacturer of the relatively inexpensive but lethal pesticide monocrotophos, which has been directly linked to Swainson's mortality, have cooperated with  raptor biologists from Canada, America and Argentina in an effort to use less lethal pesticides (which still have the effect of depriving the Swainson's of their natural prey), and restrict where monocrotophos is used.


    Nevertheless, the Swainson's, partly because of the situation on the Pampas, but also because of the decline of Richardson ground squirrels and other small plains rodents in the US,
is in general decline throughout its range. Fire was shot by some moron in Utah, and later survived West Nile virus during its recovery period. Watch the video linked below for a fascinating documentary on the Swainson's hawk.

 Gary and Steve


Swainsons Hawk Rangepepper and FireFire, right, with enclosure buddy, Pepper

Fire, right, with her enclosure mate, Pepper, a Rough Legged Hawk
photo by Steve Hall

Fire

Pepper and Fire

Pepper and Fire

Fire with Meghan
Fire with Alex
Fire with Meghan and Alex


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Swainsons documentary

Great documentary on the Swainsons Hawk featuring Dr. Stuart Houston, prof. Marc Bechard & others

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