Species: Harris Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)
Favourite food: Meat… lots of meat
How they got their name: When Linus first came to Earth Rangers, he didn’t clean is feather as much as the other birds, so we thought of Linus from the Snoopy cartoons (we were actually thinking Pigpen but got them mixed up. Whoops!)
Natural behaviours: When Linus takes flight you can see how he uses his tail to steer and control his speed while in the air
Favourite thing to do at the Earth Rangers Centre: He is very chatty when out for walks with his trainers, which he loves to do!
Here’s what Animal Trainer Laura has to say about Linus…
Compared with his brother Phoenix, Linus tends to be the more outgoing bird of the two. Linus chats up a storm, and will happily sit on his handler’s glove calling out over and over again to anyone who will listen to his stories.
- Harris hawks are medium-sized brown birds of prey with a wingspan of one metre
- They are found in semi-desert areas in the Americas from the Southwestern United States to central Chile and Argentina
- They hunt as a team, which helps them take down large prey
- Sometimes females can lay eggs three times a year. It takes 35 days for them to hatch and after 40 more days, the young can fly
- Conservation status: Least concern (IUCN, 2012) but habitat loss is a threat
The Harris hawk, sometimes more formally called Harris’s hawk, is a medium-sized bird of prey. Their head, under parts and flight feathers are dark brown, and they have a huge black tail with a white tip. They have brown backs and red leg feathers that stop just above their yellow legs. A Harris hawk’s wingspan is usually about one metre, with the female being larger than the male. As birds of prey, or raptors, Harris hawks are really good at hunting and catching live prey. They have keen eyesight and special ridges over their eyes to shield them from sunlight (much like a baseball cap). Their long, powerful talons (claws) are designed to grip onto prey, and their sharp, hooked beak easily tears through meat. The Harris hawk is a very popular bird used in modern falconry (hunting with hawks), especially for hunting, flight demonstrations and controlling birds around parks and airports. This popularity is because Harris hawks are tough birds but are relatively easy to train. Their social nature and trainability make Harris hawks a common choice as a first bird for new falconers who are just beginning to learn the art.
Harris hawks are native to the Americas and are non-migratory, meaning they tend to stay in the same area all year long. They live as far north as the Southwestern United States, with their range extending down into Mexico and through Central America along the Pacific coast. They can also be found in South America, both North and South of the Amazon Basin, and along the Pacific coast through Peru, Chile and Argentina. Within their range, Harris hawks prefer to live in open woodlands and semi-desert habitats. They like hot, dry savannas and areas with lots of woody shrubs. In some parts of their range in South America, they also live in mangrove swamps, areas where trees and shrubs grow on the shoreline. Harris hawks tend to do well in open areas as long as there are a few trees or patches of vegetation and a source of water close by.
Harris hawks are great hunters. Like many other hawk species, they have superior eyesight, broad wings and sharp talons, but what really makes them amazing is their ability to hunt as a team. Most birds of prey hunt alone but Harris hawks hunt in groups which makes them unique. For the Harris hawk to survive in semi-desert regions where food is very limited they have to work together. By hunting as a group, behaviour called cooperative hunting, Harris hawks have a better change of taking down large prey, when these bigger meals can be found. Cooperative hunting also means each Harris hawk will get more food without having to spend as much energy, when compared to hunting for small rodents by themselves. When they are finished eating, groups of hawks will also work together to guard leftovers so scavengers don’t steal them.
Harris hawks might be skilled predators when it comes to small mammals but sometimes they have trouble protecting themselves. Bigger animals will prey on these raptors, especially when they are young. Coyotes, Great horned owls and Common ravens have all been known to catch young Harris hawks, especially when the hawks are on the ground feeding.
Harris hawks live in small groups of up to six birds who hunt together. When hunting, these birds will use different strategies to capture animals like hares, rabbits, gophers and squirrels. In open areas, the entire group of Harris hawks will simply surround their prey, using their numbers to overpower it. If the animal happens to take cover under shrubs, one hawk will scare the prey out of hiding by walking into the bush. Sometimes their prey will simply pick a direction and start running as fast as it can. In this case, each Harris hawk will take turns leading the pack, diving and harassing their prey. If they miss or get too tired, the next hawk in line takes over. Sometimes, a hawk will circle around and fly at the animal from the opposite direction, forcing it to turn around. Since the Harris hawks take turns, they can save their energy and hunt for longer periods until their prey gets tired.
While most Harris hawks dine on mammals, some populations living in Central America will eat a diet made almost completely of other birds. In other areas, lizards are a main food source, and when food is scarce, Harris hawks will even eat carrion (dead animals).
Members of Harris hawk groups (up to six birds) are often related. Leading the group is an alpha mated pair that might breed any time of the year when there is lots of food available. Their nests are made out of twigs, branches, leaves and moss and are built in mesquite trees and saguaro cacti. The female will lay two to four eggs at a time, and can have up to three clutches of eggs in a year! The alpha male and female share most of the incubation duties, which last about 35 days, and help raise the young after they hatch. Although the young hawks will start flying after 40 days, they will stick around the area for a few more months.
Just as Harris hawks hunt together, they also raise their young together. All members of the group will help to build the nest, and may even assist in incubating the eggs and feeding of nestlings and fledglings. The other hawks stand guard, helping to defend the nest against any threat. This cooperative breeding greatly increases the chances that the eggs will hatch and young will make it to adulthood.
- Least concern (IUCN, 2012)
- Main threat is habitat loss, resulting in lack of trees and little access to water
Although they are considered least concern globally, the Harris hawk is currently facing challenges in its natural environment due to habitat loss. When brush and trees are removed for agriculture, it might not seem like a big thing for you, but it can be devastating for Harris hawks. Brush and trees are important as perches and nest sites in areas where there aren’t many plants available. Disappearing rivers, due to growing cities and dams is also a threat to Harris hawks because both they and their prey need clean water for survival.
Possibly because of their social lifestyle, Harris hawks do not adapt to life in urban areas as well as other birds of prey can, making them very sensitive to changes to the landscape. Even though their populations are still considered to be healthy overall, the number of Harris hawks in the wild is getting smaller. Luckily, it isn’t too late to protect Harris hawks and their habitats. Many conservation groups are showing farmers how to farm in a way that doesn’t hurt Harris hawk populations or their habitat. They are also being protected through the creation of national parks in their range. It is important to be aware of the impacts we can have on animals and their habitats. By working together we can protect biodiversity!