Harris’ Hawk — Tucson’s Semi-Official Bird
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Most if not all states have an official state bird. In Arizona it’s the Cactus Wren (not the Greater Roadrunner, that’s New Mexico’s state bird). I don’t know if any municipality has an official city bird. But, if Tucson were to adopt one as its own, it most likely would be the Harris’ Hawk. This hawk is emblematic of our community. Residents here regard the bird with great affection and visitors from all over the world seek it out. A daily feature of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum during the cool months from October through March is a flight of up to five Harris’ Hawks.
Why are Tucsonans so fond of these birds? It has a lot to do with the fact that they have adopted us as much as we have taken to them.
Harris’ Hawks are large raptors, just fractionally smaller than Red-tailed Hawks. They have a somewhat unique appearance, with relatively short, paddle-shaped wings, long tails, and long legs. Ornithologists classify these birds in their own unique genus, Parabuteo, due to their unique morphology.
They are striking in appearance. Their plumage is a deep rusty brown with russet accents. They have a white patch at the base of their tails and the tips of their tails are white as well. The skin on their faces is bright yellow. They look fierce and, in fact, they are fierce predators, pursuing rodents as large as jackrabbits.
These hawks are common throughout Mexico, Central, and parts of South America. They’re a relatively rare sight in the United States, with their range in this country limited to southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and a strip of Texas running along the Mexican border. Throughout their range — with one exception — Harris’ Hawks are solitary, preferring to hunt alone and to remain aloof from their kind except when they mate. But, in southern Arizona, they manifest a very different lifestyle. Here, and only here, Harris’ Hawks live and hunt in family groups. Families of from two to ten or more of these birds live communally. They often hunt in packs and they raise their offspring collectively.
No one knows why or how the Arizona hawks modified their behavior. But, it makes them unique birds of special interest for birders, tourists, and ornithologists alike.
Tucson is home to a number of Harris’ Hawk families. Here, these birds have urbanized and they are thoroughly embedded in our community. I’ve seen them from time to time while driving around town, perching on utility poles or on a tall tree in someone’s backyard. It’s not rare to see several Harris’ Hawks perching on utility poles alongside a heavily trafficked urban street. Generally, if I see one bird I’ll soon see one or two more, perching just a few yards or a few hundred feet away. The birds in a group stay in contact simply by perching in sight of each other. They also vocalize in order to stay in touch. These hawks vocalize frequently, with harsh calls that sound a lot like two pieces of metal being scraped together.
I photographed the Harris’ Hawks in these images (there are two birds with the bird in image # 3 being different from the one in images #s 1, 2 and 4) as they perched alongside a road in one of Tucson’s eastern suburbs. I’ve been told that a family of these hawks has lived in the same neighborhood for more than a decade.
Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting. The first image shot at ISO 1250, f8 @ 1/1600. The second and fourth images shot at ISO 640, f8 @ 1/1000. The third image shot at ISO 800, f8 @ 1/1250.