The word Buzzard is derived, through the French busard, from the Latin buteo, and according to Newton should perhaps properly be restricted to the common Buzzard (Buteo Buteo) of western Europe, but as a matter of fact it is applied, at least as a book name, to the entire group under consideration. In North America, however, where the Black and Turkey Vultures are almost always denominated “Buzzards,” this name is rarely if ever applied to the members of the present subfamily, these being called “Hawks,” with some distinguishing prefix, as ” Red-tailed,” “Swainson’s,” ” Red-shouldered,” etc. The Buzzards, when the name is applied in the broad sense as standing for this whole group, embrace several genera and a large number of species, of medium-sized or some of them large birds, of heavy, compact build and rather sluggish habits as compared with many of the other diurnal birds of prey. They bear the reputation of being more or less cowardly and pusillanimous in disposition. More than a century ago Gilbert White wrote : ” The Buzzard is a dastardly bird, and beaten not only by the Raven, but even by the Carrion Crow.” This may apply to the species of which it was said, but it is not wholly applicable to the New World representatives, for, while they may lack the snap and vim evinced by the Falcons, they are by no means without courage and spirit.
The genus Buteo, which may be recognized as typical of the subfamily, is a large group of some thirty-three forms, no less than twenty-two of which are natives of the New World. The remainder are widely distributed in the Old World, except in the Indian and Malay provinces, and Australasia and Oceanica, where they are unknown. They have the heavy, robust build characteristic of the group, with the bill of small or moderate size, the culmen, which is curved from the cere, with the commissure nearly straight and exhibiting no evidence of a tooth. The wings are always ample and long, the third to fifth quills longest, with the first three or four emarginated on the inner webs, while the tail is of moderate length and rounded at the end. The tarsus is rather long, naked or nearly so, and covered with scales, while the toes are short but provided with strong claws.
The Buzzards have usually been placed next the Eagles, with which they have many points in common, but they differ, among other things, in assuming, it is said, the adult plumage after the first moult, whereas it takes several years for the Eagles to attain full plumage. But despite this lack of a series of immature plumages in the Buteos, there is abundant variation in their coloration, since distinctly light, rufous, and melanistic (black) forms are found in several species, in some instances these differences being so marked as to have resulted in their being regarded as distinct species. In general the Buzzards feed on mice and other small mammals, snakes, frogs, lizards, large insects, and an occasional bird, usually an injured or sickly one, and some of the American species have the more or less deserved reputation of helping themselves in the poultry yard.