Harris’ Hawks: Wolves of the Sky – July 2011

The HaHa brothers


Unlike the similarly sized red-tailed hawk, whose idea of cooperation is limited to hunting alongside its mate if it has one, Harris’ hawks relish in attacking as a group, making use of surprisingly complex stratagems to ensure that every family member gets fed. In the process, they reveal a kind of behavior practically unheard of in the raptor world.

At first glance, so many birds working together has an obvious downside. After all, it takes far more food to feed seven hawks than it does one. In reality, though, their tactics enable them to catch game at an incredibly efficient pace, making the added food consumption a reasonable tradeoff. Among other things, Harris’ hawks will use relay tactics, where they take turns chasing the same jackrabbit, literally driving the animal to exhaustion. And if the jackrabbit takes cover in the bushes? Harris’ hawks will go in after it, sending one or two of their number in on foot, while the rest perch around the bush waiting for the rabbit to flush. With the rabbit forced to flee in the face of invasion, it’s only a matter of time before the birds wear it down to the point where it’s too tired to resist. Though one rabbit, even a jack, isn’t nearly enough to feed seven birds, by dividing the effort between them, they can easily go after more prey with a minimum amount of exertion per bird.

Like most raptors, female Harris’ hawks are larger, with the size difference between sexes being far more pronounced than, say, in red-tailed hawks, where there is more of an overlap between larger males and smaller females. Though females have more physical power, which lends itself well to tackling prey like jackrabbits, male Harris’ hawks are actually the dominant hunters, and their comparative lack of size is more than compensated for by an extreme maneuverability, making them incredibly versatile predators. What’s truly impressive is how they all come together, each bird as part of a whole, doing things that would be much more difficult, time-consuming, and taxing for a single bird, no matter how strong or nimble. Their pack mentality makes them one of the most unique raptors in the world, one that people living in Arizona are truly fortunate to see in their natural setting.


3 Responses to Harris’ Hawks: Wolves of the Sky – July 2011

  1. Claudia Kirscher says:

    Greg, a well-written and informative article. I thoroughly enjoyed it !

  2. Pam Kohnken says:

    Really enjoyed this article since there are 5 hawks living 2 blocks from my home who love to perch on the phone line above my backyard to look for the cottontails.

  3. Annalyn Osborn says:

    Thanks for the education! Loved it!

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