Maricopa Audubon Society Birds in Maricopa County

Arizona Special Species: Harris' Hawk

Since many hawks tend to be large birds and sit in relatively open places such as the tops of utility poles along major roads in open country, they are often noticed by even beginning birders. Most of the "roadside" hawks we see as we travel the highways of Arizona are Red-tailed Hawks, just as they are the most common species in much of the United States. But Arizona offers the observant traveller the chance to see many other hawks, once they become aware of the possibilities and learn what to look for and where to look.

The Harris' Hawk (Parabuteo Unicinctus) is usually grouped with the buteo hawks - large birds with thick bodies, broad wings, and somewhat rounded tails that are often seen soaring or perched in the open. The Harris' Hawk is a dark brown bird, often appearing black, that reveals large chestnut patches on the shoulder and legs when perched, and chestnut wing linings when in flight (an alternate name for this bird is Bay-winged Hawk). There is a large white area on the upper and lower surfaces of the rump, and a narrow white terminal band on the tail. Immature birds are streaked on the breast. The body ranges from 18 to 24 inches in length, with a wingspan of 45 inches. Females are larger than males.

This is definitely a southwestern bird, occurring in central and southern Arizona, adjacent New Mexico, west Texas, and southeastern California. It is casual in neighboring states; more-so in the past year. Its range extends south through South America as far as central Chile. The highest number of reported Harris' Hawks on Christmas Bird Counts in the United States often comes from our own Salt/Verde River CBC.

Harris' Hawk

The Harris' Hawk nests in cactus, from 10 to 30 feet above ground. Nesting occurs in February through October; multiple broods in a single year are common. In Arizona, eggs are generally laid from early March to mid April, numbering from 1 to 5 eggs. Curiously, about half the eggs are pure white or bluish-white, while the other half are speckled with brown or lavender. Incubation is 33-36 days, with young birds making their first flight about 40 days after hatching. Harris' Hawks have come under close observation by biologists for their cooperative living arrangements. Nests are often maintained by a female and two or more males; both males may mate with the single female and jointly raise a mixed brood. Breeding patterns are highly variable over the range of these hawks.

Harris' Hawks feed primarily or small mammals and reptiles, but birds play a major role in their diet as well. Hunting is often done in cooperative groups, with some birds "herding" prey towards another bird that actually makes the capture and kills the prey. Harris' Hawks often plunge into brushy cover to flush prey that would be safe from other pedators. Look for Harris' Hawks on telephone poles along US 60 east of Mesa, on Mill Avenue near the Phoenix Zoo, on the wires behind the stores at the Tanger outlet along I-10 near Casa Grande, and almost any other place around Phoenix.

- Richard Ditch

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Last updated: June 15, 2012 11:21