The Rough-legged Hawk has a circumpolar distribution, breeding in the arctic and subarctic of North America and Eurasia, between the latitudes of 60 and 77 degrees N. In Europe it is known as the Rough-legged Buzzard. In the winter it migrates south and may be seen in northern states of the US.
In tundra and taiga habitats, it builds its nest on cliffs, bluffs or in trees. The average number of eggs laid is 4, but in years with abundant prey, there may be as many as 7, while as few as 2 in years of scarcity. They search for prey over open land, feeding primarily on small mammals, especially lemmings, though birds may be taken also. They are one of the few hawks to hover regularly as they watch the ground for prey.
The name comes from the appearance of the feathers present on the legs and feet. Size ranges from about to 18 to 24 inches, with wingspan ranging from 47 to 59 inches. Plumage varies and there are basically light morphs and dark morphs.On pale morphs, there is usually a broad band of brown across the belly, and a dark patch at the bend of the wings. Females are larger than males, as with most hawks.
Arctic foxes, brown bears, and wolverines may eat eggs and young if able to reach nests, while ravens, skuas, and Snowy owls may also predate here. Adults, may face danger from eagles, and large falcons. In the southern winter range, great horned owls and occasionally other large hawks, may be a threat. Collisions with power lines and buildings cause many deaths and many are hit by vehicles while feeding on road kills. Secondary poisoning from lead shot from prey as well as illegal hunting and trapping are additional sources of mortality. Before protection, enormous numbers were shot in the US during the 'war on predators'.