I first saw a Harris’s hawk at a birds of prey show at a country fair. He was very well trained, flying from perches to the handler’s arm right above our heads. It was pretty cool. I was pretty impressed by that Harris’ hawk, so I thought I’d blog about his wild cousins.

A beautiful picture of a majestic Harris’ hawk. Image by Alan Vernon, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Harris’s hawks live in North and South America, from the southern US and Mexico to Central America, and as far south as Chile. They are usually found in more open areas, such as deserts and sparse woodlands. They require relatively high structures for perching and nesting. These usually take the form of trees, power poles, and cacti.

Harris’s hawks get to be fairly large, reaching lengths of 46-76 cm, and wingspans 100-120 cm. Females are larger than males by about 35%. Harris’ hawks are covered in brown feathers, with slightly reddish shoulders and wings. There are distinctive white markings at the tip and base of the tail.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Harris’s hawks is their cooperative behaviour. Birds of prey generally don’t work together too much, but Harris’ hawks do, and they are well known for it. They usually live in groups of two to seven hawks, and there is a strict dominance hierarchy maintained in the group. At the head of the group is the breeding alpha female. After her comes any other mature females in the group, though often these are not present. Then comes the dominant male, who is allowed to breed with the alpha female, and after him, any other mature males. At the bottom of the pecking order are the immature birds, which are often offspring of the alpha female and alpha male.

The group hunts cooperatively, which allows the hawks to take bigger prey than they would normally be able to. In one method of hunting, the birds surround their prey on the ground, and take turns trying to scare the prey out of its hiding spot. When the frightened prey animal tries to run, another bird from the group is waiting, and catches and kills it. Harris’s hawks will eat rats, mice, lizards, and birds, and bigger prey such as cottontails and jackrabbits.

A juvenile Harris’s hawk. They are much lighter than mature adults. Image by Flickr user whiskymac (Reg McKenna), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Harris’s hawks also work together during the breeding season, with males in the group helping care for and protect the eggs. The breeding female lays two to four eggs, and can lay two to three clutches a year. The eggs hatch after just over a month, and fledge after 40 days. Juveniles may stay with the group for a long time, up to three years, to help raise other chicks.

Harris’s hawks are very commonly used in falconry, as they are easy to train thanks to their intelligence and social behaviour. They are not currently threatened in the wild, though the population is declining thanks to habitat loss. Let’s hope these cool, cooperating hawks can stay abundant, because they are awesome!

Cover image by Alan Vernon, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped to fit