Ferruginous Hawk showing its feathered legs (tarsi) – Nikon D500, f8, 1/1600, ISO 400, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited
North America has two hawk (buteos) species that have feathered tarsi, or legs, those two species are Ferruginous Hawks and Rough-legged Hawks.
Ferruginous Hawks generally have rusty colored feathering on their legs although on some immature light morph Ferruginous Hawks the feathering may be lighter in color. The light morph Ferruginous Hawk in the photo above shows the typical rusty colored tarsi that help distinguish this species from other buteos in the field through the lens of a camera, scope, binoculars or naked eyes. There are of course other features that can be used to ID this species but a hawk with feathered legs helps to narrow the ID down to just two in North America.
Side note: Golden Eagles also have feathered tarsi however they are not buteos.
Male Rough-legged Hawk showing its feathered legs (tarsi) – Nikon D810, f6.3, 1/1600, ISO 320, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited
The other North American buteos that have feathered tarsi are Rough-legged Hawks, they are raptors that breed in the Arctic tundra and taiga. The coloring of the feathers on their legs varies with gender, age and morph.
Here in Utah we see Rough-legged Hawks only during their nonbreeding season starting around October, so if you see a hawk with feathered legs in July chances are you could easily rule out Rough-legged Hawk as your ID simply because it would be highly unlikely to see a Rough-legged Hawk in the lower 48 during the breeding season.
Light morph Swainson’s Hawk adult about to scratch – Nikon D500, f10, 1/640, ISO 400, -0.7 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited
I wanted to include at least one buteo species here to compare their bare tarsi to the feathered tarsi of Rough-legged and Ferruginous Hawks in the photos above so I picked this close up of a light morph Swainson’s Hawk that was about to scratch itself when I photographed it in northern Utah earlier this year that shows its bare legs quite well.
When it gets really cold here in northern Utah there are times I wish I had feathered legs too to keep them warm and insulated but I have to settle for layering my clothing.
Life is good.