Harris’ Hawks, A Tucson Icon — Part I

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It’s going to take more than one post to tell this story, so bear with me, please.

A couple of weeks ago I was called by a friend, Ned Harris, who asked me if I would be interested in observing and photographing a family of Harris’ Hawks (no, the birds are not named after Ned).  Ned told me that he’d spotted a group of these raptors not far from his home and that they were raising some chicks.  That was more than enough encouragement for me, and so, I visited the hawks nearly every morning at sunrise for about 10 days.

Harris’ Hawks are an iconic species in the Tucson area.  They are perhaps easier to observe here than any place else in the United States.  Although these birds are common in Latin America, they live in only a few locations in the United States, with southern Arizona being one of them.  The southern Arizona hawks have developed a lifestyle here that is unique among North American raptors: unlike any other species of hawk, Harris’ Hawks in southern Arizona live communally in clans.  Not only is this behavior unique among hawks but Harris’ Hawks’ communal lifestyle in southern Arizona is unique among Harris’ Hawks.  Birds of the same species who live in Latin America or in a few other locations in the United States, such as southwest Texas, do not live communally.

Harris’ Hawks are extraordinarily handsome birds.  They are quite large, about 3/4 the size of a Red-tailed Hawk.  They have dark, chocolate-colored bodies with rufous, black, and white accents.  Harris’ Hawks have broad, paddle-shaped wings, long tails, and exceptionally long legs.  They are fierce looking birds, with powerful beaks and piercing brown eyes.  In flight they are among the most graceful and agile of all raptors.

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The Tucson area Harris’ Hawks have become urbanized.  I occasionally see them while driving around Tucson, sometimes sitting on utility poles or even on light stanchions in shopping mall parking lots.  Generally, when one sees one of these birds the likelihood is that others are close at hand.

The Harris’ Hawks that Ned introduced me to consist of a family of at least five adults dominated by a matriarch.  Invariably, with Harris’ Hawks an alpha female heads the group.  As is typical of Harris’ Hawks, she is much larger than most of the other members of her group.

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She would often sit on her favorite perch, the top of a tall Cypress, in regal isolation.

The group contains a second large bird, either the matriarch’s mate or a subordinate female.  The second bird is so big that I’ve more or less concluded that she is a female, probably the matriarch’s daughter, who has yet to establish her own clan.  In the two weeks that I observed these birds, I became more familiar with the subordinate female than any of the other members of the clan.  She often perched in plain view.

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She has a very assertive personality and was quick to express her annoyance at me if I invaded what she considered to be her space.

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The clan includes several smaller birds who probably are males.

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During the period that I observed them, the hawks’ activity centered around a very large pine located in a residential yard.  The birds had constructed a large nest in the pines’ upper branches and they were rearing three nestlings (two of them pictured below).  They were also in the process of constructing a second nest not far from the original nest.  It’s unclear whether another brood of nestlings is on the way.

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When I first saw these youngsters they were close to being able to fly.  Over the ensuing days I would observe them learning how to fly and chart their progress.

My most enduring impression from observing these birds was how tightly knit is their family and how loyal the members of the clan are to each other.  I’ll provide more illustrations of the clan’s behavior in days to come.

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 400DO+1.4X Extender.  All images made at aperture priority setting.  ISOs, shutter speeds, and apertures varied.

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