The Nature Writers of Texas

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Sunday, November 02, 2003

Harris's Hawks are Something Special
Ro Wauer, November 2, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

On a recent trip to the Rio Grande Valley, I was once again impressed with the numerous Harris's hawks found along the way. Although these marvelous raptors can often be found as far north as Victoria and Jackson counties, they are far more numerous to the south. And they often are seen on utility poles along the main highways. Sometimes they will allow a good close view. Then their contrasting plumage of a black-brown back, front, and head, chestnut shoulders and feathered legs, and a white tail marked with a broad black band, can be admired. Slightly smaller than our red-tailed hawk, they are one of our most colorful and fascinating raptors.

Its flight is sometimes slow and sluggish, and usually fairly low over the ground. But they also can soar high overhead, especially when the thermals are good, and may even soar out of sight from the ground. Vocalizations are usually rather weak "eee eee eee eee," but they also possess a loud harsh "karr" call.

Harris's hawks, most closely related to the common black-hawk of the Southwest, ranges from coastal Texas west through most of southern Arizona. They are found among the saguaros of Arizona's Sonoran Desert and within the Big Bend Country of Texas, but they are most abundant in South Texas. They prefer semiarid woodlands and brushlands. Prey species include a variety of creatures that utilize these habitats, including various rodents and snakes, lizards, cottontails, and even insects on occasions. Wood rats and mice are favorite prey.

Harris's hawks are highly social birds, usually found in family groups and known to hunt cooperatively. Ornithologist James Bednartz reported on "social foraging" as a common technique for this species. Groups of four and five Harris's hawks often pursue prey as a relay team. He found this hunting method produced higher success than when hunting alone or in pairs. And ornithologist William Mader found that Harris's hawk nest not only in pairs (twosomes) but also in trios (threesomes). He reported that the "extra hawk served as a nest helper by feeding the chicks and/or supplying prey at the nest." Although helpers are utilized by a few other bird species, such as bushtits, Harris's hawk helpers are unique in the raptor world.

Of course, all of the raptors are rather unique, each one in its own right. Another hawk I am rather partial to is the white-tailed hawk, a South Texas specialty, and often considered the most beautiful of all our raptors. But even the stately red-tailed hawk is special. And who could complain about our bald eagle that is resident in our area all winter into spring. Our full-time resident red-shouldered hawk is also special, although it is often ignored because it is so common. Another rather special wintertime hawk is the northern harrier, the white-rumped, long-winged raptor that cruises low over our fields and pastures. And who does not appreciate the peregrine falcon in winter? This large falcon is the fastest bird in the world, able to dive at more than 100 miles per hour. Although it is most often found along the coast, it occasionally is found inland.

South Texas has more wintertime raptors than anywhere else in North America, as many as 17 hawks and 6 owls. Each take their share of rodents and other creatures often considered vermin by some folks. But all of the birds and their prey are part of an amazing web of life, one that we all have responsibilities to protect.

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