Swainson’s Hawks — Love Birds

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As a nature photographer I am interested in capturing more than portraits of my subjects. I seek to document behaviors that give the viewer an insight into the minds and lifestyles of the creatures that I photograph.

Recently, I made a series of images that I think speaks volumes about the relationship between two Swainson’s Hawks.

These two are a mated pair. For at least four years they have returned each spring to the same stand of pecan trees along a rural road in southern Arizona’s farm country. In the past they’ve successfully raised at least one offspring.

A couple of weeks ago I was driving down this road when I encountered the female member of the pair. I’ve photographed her on many occasions, so often in fact, that I consider her to be an acquaintance. She was perched among thick foliage. There was a window among the branches and leaves that gave me an opportunity to make a nice portrait of her.

I had made just a handful of images when something unexpected occurred. Suddenly, her mate flew into my camera’s frame and landed on the female’s back.

He perched there, balancing himself with his wings. The female Swainson’s Hawk voiced no objection to this behavior.

The behavior was brief, lasting only seconds. Then, the male took flight and landed just meters away, perching on an exposed and dead limb.

What was going on with this pair? When raptors mate the males typically perch on top of the females. However, in this instance the male made no attempt to mate with the female hawk. I suspect that this behavior was either an advanced form of courtship or perhaps simply an expression of affection between the two Swainson’s Hawks.

I’ve documented a similar behavior among another species of hawk — Harris’s Hawk. That species organizes into tightly knit matriarchal families. Often, a member of the family will perch on the back of another member in a behavior known as “back stacking.” It’s thought that the Harris’s Hawks do this as a way of cementing ties within the group. However, with Harris’s Hawks, it isn’t just a male-female thing. Males in a family may perch atop other males’ backs.

Swainson’s Hawks do not live in multi-member families. But mated pairs stay together for life and are very close. With Swainson’s Hawks “back stacking” surely is a way of reinforcing the pair bond. In any event, I was delighted to capture this behavior, something that I’ve never seen previously with this species.

Images made with a Canon R5, Canon EF 400mm F4 DO II lens+Canon EF 1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO). First three images, ISO 2000, f6.3 @ 1/3200, +1 1/3 stops exposure compensation. Fourth image, ISO 800, f6.3 @ 1/2000, +1 1/3 stops exposure compensation.

4 Replies to “Swainson’s Hawks — Love Birds”

  1. cintwigg says:

    Backstacking! Never heard of it until today. And yes, being a good nature photographer – like you are – is more than just taking pretty pictures. It is the ability to document moments that might provide insight about the natural world. Thank you for doing this.

  2. burrdoo says:

    Amazing shots documenting unusual behavior – should you submit your post to Audubon/Cornell/?? Thanks for sharing.

  3. […] Swainson’s Hawks — Love Birds — Sonoran Images […]

  4. picpholio says:

    Wonderful shots, my compliment Steven… not only for this post but for all others to.
    It would be an honour to follow your work here.
    Kind regards,

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