Let's Talk About Birds: Harris hawks

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This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.

Harris hawks

Falcons! Hawks! Eagles! To most sports fans, these names conjure up images of sportsmanship and teamwork. To birders, falcons, hawks and eagles are terrible team players who choose to hunt and live alone or with a mate. But one bird of prey breaks the mold -- the Harris hawk.

Harris hawks are found in dry habitats such as savannahs, prairies and deserts ranging from the Southwestern United States through South America. These challenging environments do not provide for many places to roost, so Harris hawks have made perching a team activity. These birds will sit anywhere they can find space, including on top of other Harris hawks! This behavior, called "stacking," helps the birds to better observe their prey and to spot predators such as coyotes, ravens and great-horned owls.

Harris hawks nest on top of trees, bushes, cactuses or buildings. The female will lay two to four eggs, which take about a month to hatch. Juveniles fledge about six weeks after hatching. A few young Harris hawks will remain in their parents' territory for up to three years. During this time, they help to raise younger siblings and assist in cooperative hunting.

Although commonly observed in mammals such as wolves, cooperative hunting is extremely rare in birds. For this reason, Harris hawks have earned the nickname "wolves of the sky." When hunting smaller prey like quail and squirrels, the birds hunt alone. But when hunting larger prey such as jackrabbits, Harris hawks will hunt in packs of up to six birds.

The hunting team typically employs two hunting methods. The first strategy involves one or two birds diving into a sheltered space where prey hides, flushing it out into the open where other team members can capture it. The second strategy involves each Harris hawk taking turns chasing the prey. If one bird experiences a near miss, another bird is waiting in the wings to take over until the prey is captured.

Cooperative hunting is very efficient, but it is each Harris hawk's physical adaptations that deserve the credit for team wins. Long legs aid in flushing prey from bushes and small spaces. Long tails and short wings enable acrobatic agility, allowing these hawks to make sharp turns and fly through small openings in the brush as they pursue their next meal.

All three of these amazing behaviors will be on display as the National Aviary debuts "Talons!," a new show in our Helen M. Schmidt FliteZone Theater. Opening Saturday, the show includes Harris hawks and other fascinating birds from around the world. This weekend also includes the reopening of the SkyDeck show presented by Dollar Bank, where you can witness just how fast and high our birds can fly outdoors.

The National Aviary's summer season begins Saturday and runs through Labor Day. For more information, visit www.aviary.org.



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