Young Harris’ Hawk — On Her Own?

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Yesterday morning I was driving on a suburban street when I noticed a large raptor sitting on a utility pole.  Intrigued, I parked and walked over to take a closer look. The bird was a Harris’ Hawk — a young bird, probably a yearling judging from the white feathers on her breast, and a very large one.  Her size strongly suggested that the hawk was a female.

Harris’ Hawks are iconic residents of the Tucson area.  They live and hunt in family groups, sometimes of seven or even more birds, unlike any other North American raptor.  In Tucson, they’ve urbanized to the extent that one frequently sees these birds perched on trees and utility poles in suburban neighborhoods.  I know of at least three Harris’ Hawk families in our community and there are, in fact, many more than that in Tucson and its suburbs.

These beautiful hawks and their unique lifestyle are so renowned that birding enthusiasts come to Tucson motivated at least in part by the desire to see them.  I volunteer at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and visitors often ask me where they can observe Harris’ Hawks in the wild.

I observed this hawk for several minutes.  She was all by herself and none of her family was nearby.  That was a bit unusual.  I occasionally see solitary Harris’ Hawks but more often if I see one I’ll see others perching on adjacent utility poles or on perches that are within a very short drive.  The young bird vocalized every few seconds.

Adult Harris’ Hawks have a call that has a harsh, grating quality to it.  It sounds a bit like two pieces of metal being scraped against each other.  The quality of this bird’s vocalizations was different.  There was a plaintive, almost whiny quality to her calls.  It took me a minute to realize that she wasn’t uttering an adult call, but rather, making the kind of contact call that fledgling hawks make when they’re seeking reassurance from their parents.  Last spring I’d watched a Harris’ Hawk nest for a couple of weeks and the newly fledged youngsters were uttering almost the exact call that this bird was uttering.

But, this hawk, albeit young, was no fledgling.  Judging from her plumage she was definitely a yearling bird.  So, what was going on?

I can only guess, but for what it’s worth, I think that she may have been kicked out of her family and was showing her distress.   Harris’ Hawk families are invariably headed by one female bird (alpha female).  All of the other members of the group are subordinate to her.  Sometimes, an alpha female will not tolerate the presence of other females in her family, particularly during breeding season, which is right now.  So, for what it’s worth, I think that this bird may have been told by the alpha female in her group that she could no longer hang around and that she was on her own.

That’s how new Harris’ Hawk families get started.  A solo female, like this one, finds a mate, and before too long she has hatchlings that mature and become her family.  With any luck, this hawk may find a boyfriend before too long.

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f8 @ 1/1250.


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