This bird made hawk-watching famous. Thousands of birders gather to watch the annual fall migration of broad-winged hawks. They start in September in New England, traveling down the Appalachian ridges on their way to their wintering grounds in South America. They occur in light and dark (rare) morphs, females are slightly larger than males, juveniles different from adults. Polytypic (6 ssp.; nominate in North America). Length 16"; wingspan 34".
The smallest North American buteo. Dark morph: adult has an all-dark body with dark wing coverts and silvery flight feathers, the dark tail has a wide white band. The juvenile is dark with variable light streaking on body and wing coverts. Light-morph adult: Head, back, and wings are brown, throat is white, wing tips dark, dark tail with 1 wide white band. A second, thinner band may be visible on the fanned tail. Undersides are white with brown or rufous barring across breast, less on the belly. Some individuals may have a solid-colored dark breast, giving the bird a dark bib. Juvenile: brown above like adult, but with pale superciliary line on head, dark malar stripe; brown tail has multiple darker bands, widest band at tip. Underparts are white with dark streaking on breast and belly, but amount of streaking is highly variable, sometimes almost absent. Flight: wing tips are more pointed than those of the other common buteos, and the trailing edge is almost straight. Adult has pale wing linings and flight feathers contrasting with dark primary tips, a wide dark band along the trailing edge of the wing. Juveniles have slightly longer tails, but the same wing silhouette with the trailing edges not as dark. Backlit wings show a light rectangle at the base of the primaries. Underwing coverts are variably streaked, as is the belly. Wingbeats are stiff; it soars on flat wings.
When flying, a juvenile red-shouldered hawk shows light crescents at base of primaries and a longer tail. Perched, it has a brown tail with dark bands, 3 bands on folded secondaries. Juvenile Cooper’s hawk can show the same overall markings, but no malar stripe; shorter, barred wings and much longer tail give a different shape.
A thin, whistled kee-eee, rarely in migration, easily whistled by blue jays.
Status and Distribution
Common. Breeding: nests in woodlands throughout eastern North America to eastern Texas and Minnesota, in Canada west to Alberta and British Columbia. The rare dark morph nests in western Canada. Migration: famed for migrating in groups (called “kettles”), generally utilizing updrafts along mountain ridges. Reluctant to cross open water. The Great Lakes create good viewing spots in both fall (Lake Erie) and spring (Lake Ontario). During the last 6 days in September, typically over 700,000 broad-wings pass over Corpus Christi, Texas. Winter: small numbers, usually juveniles, in southern Florida and southern Texas, rare in California. Vagrant: dark morph birds casually seen in the East, mostly in spring migration.
Stable, as far as is known.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006