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Graphic: What About Swainson's Hawks

Graphic: Background Information

Glance overhead the next time you take a summer stroll through a field or along some country road. Chances are you will see a member of the hawk family floating gracefully on invisible currents or perched in a dead tree quietly surveying the terrain. There are several species of hawks found in marshes, grasslands, woodlands, and our local shrub-steppe ecosystem. The Mid-Columbia Basin provides nesting and foraging habitat for many species including Swainson's hawks.

What are Swainson's hawks?
Swainson's hawks belong to a subfamily of hawks called buteos. Buteos are the large hawks with fan-shaped tails you often see soaring on broad wings or sitting on power lines surveying their domain. Mistakenly called "chicken hawks," buteos are actually helpful in controlling rodent populations. Red-tailed hawks and northern harriers also are common hawks seen in our area.

Photo: Swainson Hawk
Swainson's hawks are one of many species of hawks living in the Columbia Basin.

Swainson's hawks are the smallest buteo hawk inhabiting southeastern Washington. During the nesting season (April-August), they may be the most common large bird of prey. Swainson's hawks are noted for their remarkable long-distance migration from North America to the grasslands of Argentina and back again. On their winter journey south, these birds fly through Mexico and Central America in flocks that may number in the thousands, often traveling with turkey vultures and broad-winged hawks. Columbia Basin Swainson's hawks return north in April to nest in the Columbia Basin.

Like several North American hawks, Swainson's hawks come in many different plumages, known as color morphs. Adults are chocolate brown with a speckled or rusty breast, white belly, and yellow feet. These hawks have broad, rounded wings. Swainson's hawks soar with their wings held in a distinct shallow "V."

What do Swainson's hawks eat?
The diet of Swainson's hawks varies depending on the habitat in which the bird is found. Here in the Columbia Basin, their primary food source consists of small mammals, including pocket gophers, pocket mice, and voles; reptiles and amphibians, including western yellow-bellied racers and common garter snakes; insects; other birds; and rabbits.

Graphic: Shrub Steppe Logo

"Science is constructed of facts as a house is of stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." Henri Poincare

Keep in mind this fact sheet is intended to be used only as background information to support your effort to encourage inquiry-based science, which parallels the way scientists uncover knowledge and solve problems.

Graphic: Suggested Activities

1. Birds of a feather.
Collect three different types of feathers from game birds (ducks, quail, pheasants, geese) or domestic birds (chickens, ducks, turkeys). Birds have down, contour, and quill feathers. Borrow a mounted (stuffed) bird from a museum or private individual or a live bird and identify where each type of feather is found on the bird's body. Observe each type of feather under a microscope, and prepare a drawing of each.

Questions a scientist might ask: Which feathers are used for flight? Which feathers are used to insulate the bird's body and keep it warm? Which feathers are used for coloration? Which feathers are used to provide protection against injury? How were bird feathers used by our ancestors? Which type of feather is most developed on a hawk? Why is this? Did you know that feathers are really modified scales, like on a snake or lizard? Look at a bird's legs and feet; they are covered with scales.

2. Hawk watch.
Find a hawk's nest located in a remote area. From early June to mid-August, observe the nest with binoculars at a respectable distance for 20-30 minutes, 2 to 3 days each week, preferably while the hawks are on the nest. Keep journal entries as to what the hawk is doing.

Questions a scientist might ask: Is there a mated pair? When are the eggs laid? How many hawks are on the nest while the eggs are incubating? How long do the eggs incubate before hatching? Observe hawks as they hunt. Are they hunting for food all the time they are flying? Do the hawks interact with any other kinds of birds while in flight? What kinds of food do the parents bring the young? Being careful not to disturb the nest, look under the nest while the hawks are away hunting. What kinds of animal parts are found on the ground under the nest? How many baby hawks lived? When did the hawks learn to fly? When did they all leave? Why are hawks important to a healthy ecosystem? NOTE: It is illegal to pick up the feathers.

Graphic: Other Resources

  1. A Field Guide to Hawks: North America (Peterson Field Guide Series Vol 35), William S. Clark, Brian K. Wheeler, 1987. Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston.
  2. Birder's Guide to Washington, Diann MacRae, 1995. Gulf Publishing, Houston, Texas.
  3. Hawks for Kids, Sumner W. Matteson, 1995. Northword Press, Minocqua, Wisconsin.
  4. Life Histories of North American Birds, A.C. Bent, Dover, Press, Mineola, New York.
  5. Predator and Prey, Outdoor Biology Instructional Strategies (OBIS), Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley, California.
  6. The Private Eye, Kerry Ruef, 1992. The Private Eye Project, Seattle, Washington.
  7. William Swainson: Naturalist, author and illustrator by David M Knight. Archives of Natural History (1986) 13(3):275-290
  8. Great Explorations in Math and Science, Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkley, California, Schoolyard Ecology (3-6)

Graphic: Web Sites...

  1. The Raptor Center -
  2. Birds of Prey -
  3. The Center for the Conservation of Specialized Species -
  4. Friends of the Swainson Hawk -
  5. Hawks and Eagles -
  6. Snake River Birds of Prey -
  7. Swainson's Hawk -

Graphic: Acknowledgments

Initial development and printing of this fact sheet was funded by an Eisenhower Grant to the Partnership for Arid Lands Stewardship. Written by: Rick Rodden Series Editor: Georganne O'Connor; Design: WinSome Design; Printing: Eagle Printing and Graphic Design. First Printing: December 1997; Web Development: WinSome Design.

Graphic: Shrub Steppe Ecology Series


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