| Oct 15, 2009

Back to HomeOutdoors in the Land O'Lakes - October 16, 2009 Broad-winged Hawkby Lorraine Julien

Photo by Janice Blondin

The accompanying photograph of a hawk was taken by one of my neighbours, Janice Blondin, this past June. It was a regular visitor to her property, feasting on frogs and small animals such as chipmunks. Since this picture only shows the back of the hawk, it was difficult to determine if it is a Red-shouldered or Broad-winged hawk. However, after much scrutiny and expert opinions, we know now that it is a Broad-wing. The Broad-winged hawk is not much larger than a crow, weighing little more than a pound but with a wingspan sometimes as much as 40 inches.

These docile, reclusive hawks love forested areas, especially near water, where small animals and amphibians are plentiful. Almost any types of trees will do for their habitat though they avoid areas that are purely coniferous.

Broad-wings migrate extremely long distances, some of them flying as far south as southern Mexico and northern Argentina. Although they are shy loners, except at breeding time, they gather with their own kind in late summer/early fall to head south. In the September sky, they congregate by the tens of thousands, in huge swirling flocks called “kettles”, riding the thermals higher and higher until they are so high you may not be able to see them with the naked eye, or if you can, they would look like little specks of grain strung out in long threads. As the large kettles fly south, more Broad-wings, and other raptors, join the already huge flocks, making it one of the great wildlife spectacles on our planet.

Most Broad-wings fly along the Great Lakes, the Appalachians and the Mississippi Valley (the American Mississippi, not ours in Frontenac County!) trying to avoid large expanses of open water. From the southern U.S. and Mexico, they funnel down through Central America to the tropical forests.

In contrast, the spring migration of Broad-wings differs a lot from the fall migration, with much smaller flocks shrinking as they travel northward – sort of like a bus route where various passengers disembark along the way.

Broad-wings arrive here later than most and leave for the south sooner than most other raptors. This is probably because a good portion of their diet is made up of cold-blooded creatures such as frogs, snakes, crayfish, etc. that are still snoozing until frost has lost its grip on the earth. From mid-April to early June, Broad-wings begin their courtship flights, called “sky-dancing” or “tumbling”. The nest is constructed of twigs built in a mature tree from 18 to 90 feet high. Several speckled white eggs are laid, with hatchlings arriving about a month later.

Predators of eggs and nestlings include raccoons, crows, porcupines, and, on rare occasions, black bears.

Unlike a lot of other raptors who cruise the sky trying to spot prey, Broad-wings patiently perch on tree branches waiting for prey to come to them (much like our chubby cat)! They do catch some food on the fly, especially when migrating, but this food usually consists of insects such as dragonflies and butterflies.

Although Broad-wings are still fairly common, their numbers appear to be declining in the east after decades of growth. If the population is, in fact, declining, it may be due to reduced forest habitat and/or reduced numbers of amphibians. Another factor may be deforestation in Latin America and the Caribbean. It’s interesting, though, that the Broad-wing population appears to be expanding westward; logging and forest fires have created gaps or openings in the forest canopy which is desirable habitat for these hawks.

I’m fairly certain these birds of summer have now departed for the south but I’ll be watching the skies and listening for its shrill whistle “pee-teee” once the sun gathers strength and spring returns again to Frontenac County.

Please feel free to report any observations to Lorraine Julien at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or Steve Blight at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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