Winter hawks and birds of prey greet WI travelers

Rob Zimmer

During the winter season, drivers along Wisconsin roads and highways are often greeted by the sharp eyes of birds of prey perched along power poles, trees and silos.

Hawks, owls and eagles, many of which have been moving south slowly throughout the fall, take up residence here during the winter months, and are often seen hunting along our roadways, even in our urban areas.

Many Wisconsin residents see hawks perched along the highway on their daily commute and travels. The Red-tailed Hawk, with variable plumage and large size, is one of the most commonly encountered.

Road tripping with redtails

It is not uncommon to see a dozen or more of our largest hawk, the red tailed hawk, stationed along stretches of interstate highway and rural roads in a single trip.

This hawk, plentiful in Wisconsin throughout the year, is especially abundant in winter as hawks from the north move south to join them.

Large, with plumage that is variable in color, the red tailed hawk normally has a distinct white chest and underside, often with a loose brown band of color across the breast. Naturally, the tail is a beautiful orange red or rusty color, best seen when the bird takes flight.

Red tailed hawks are often seen perched at the tops of power poles, as well as in trees at the forest edge.

Because of their bright white color, redtails are often confused for snowy owls.

Arctic owl

The beautiful snowy owl drifts south in varying numbers each winter, depending upon food availability in its Arctic home.

The last several years have been exceptional for snowy owl sightings in Wisconsin. So far this year, numbers are down. Lower numbers this winter would not be unusual. The snowy owl population is cyclical, meaning that there are up years and down years.

Birds of prey of many kinds are often spotted along Wisconsin roads and highways, including the breathtaking Snowy Owl.

Snowy owls are often spotted at the tops of silos and outbuildings in open areas where fields and croplands resemble their tundra homeland.

These owls hunt during the day, feeding upon small rodents, birds and other prey they can catch either on the wing or on the ground.

Feisty falcons

Our smallest falcon, the American kestrel is a colorful bird in rusty orange, slate blue, black, white and chestnut.

About the size of a mourning dove, kestrels are commonly seen hunting from their perches along telephone wires lining rural roadsides.

The tiny American Kestrel is a falcon, with long tail and colorful plumage. They are often spotted along telephone wires in open country in winter as they hunt for mice along roadside ditches and farm fields.

Their sharp eyes and ears alert them to mice and voles scurrying in the grasses below. Even beneath snow cover, the kestrel can sense its target below.

Look closely when you spot a kestrel riding the winter winds on the wires above. Often, you will see a tiny mouse in its talons.

Kestrels remain in Wisconsin the entire year, nesting in cavities in trees, as well as man-made nest boxes in open country.

Northern visitors

From high in the arctic, rough legged hawks our beautiful birds in the dark, chocolate brown with variable white and cream.

A large hawk, these birds may be quite abundant in some years during the winter season.

Found an open areas, these hawks, though large in size, feed upon the smallest prey. Their talons are not designed to capture larger animals. Their main source of prey is mice, lemmings and voles.

As you travel the roadsides and highways of Wisconsin this winter, see how many of these beautiful birds of prey you can spot on your journey.

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