A nearly black Swainson's Hawk Dark Morph sitting beside an intermediate morph Swainson's Hawk is a rare sight to behold. Filmed at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge in California in April this was a first time species for me. This is a classic sit and wait position for these hawks of the open country. Like many big raptors they could care less about the humans staring at them.
Swainson's hawk is a raptor and a medium-sized member of the Buteo genus. It broadly overlaps in size with the red-tailed hawk (B. jamaicensis), a related species found as a breeding resident almost throughout North America. Swainson's hawk is on average a little shorter in length, 43–56 cm (17–22 in) long, and weighs a bit less, 0.5–1.7 kg (1.1–3.7 lb). However, Swainson's hawk has a slightly longer wingspan at 117–137 cm (46–54 in), with more slender, elongated wings, than the red-tailed hawk. Female Swainson's hawks, at an average weight of 1.15 kg (2.5 lb), are somewhat larger and heavier than males, at an average of 0.81 kg (1.8 lb). Among standard measurements, the wing chord is 36.2–42.7 cm (14.3–16.8 in), the tail is 18.5–23.4 cm (7.3–9.2 in), the tarsus is 6.2–8 cm (2.4–3.1 in) and the bill (from the gape) is 3–3.5 cm (1.2–1.4 in). In flight, Swainson's hawk holds its wings in a slight dihedral; it tips back and forth slightly while soaring.
There are two main color variations. Over 90% of individuals are light-morph; the dark morph is most common in the far west of the range:
Light-morph adults are white on the underparts with a dark, reddish "bib" on the chest and a noticeable white throat and face patch. The underwings, seen as the bird soars, have light linings (leading edge) and dark flight feathers (trailing edge), a pattern unique among North American raptors. The tail is gray-brown with about six narrow dark bands and one wider subterminal band. The upperparts are brown. Juveniles are similar but dark areas have pale mottling and light areas, especially the flanks, have dark mottling. The chest is pale with some darker marks. The subterminal band of the tail is less obvious. Birds in their first spring may have pale heads because of feather wear.
Dark-morph birds are dark brown except for a light patch under the tail. There is a rufous variant that is lighter on the underparts with reddish bars. The tails of both these forms resemble those of the light morph.