When Hawks Attack

Birds have always fascinated me.  I especially have enjoyed working with and studying raptors.  No, not velociraptors.  I tried working with them but they became too aggressive and started trying to eat my research assistants.  I liked most of my assistants so I sent the velociraptors to the Bermuda Triangle and haven’t seen them since.  Part 2 of my blog series on birds of prey (click here for part 1), will take a look at some of the wonderful members of the hawk family.

Have you ever been watch a TV show or a movie where a bird of prey is circling in the skies?  Perhaps the camera scanned up to show a vulture in a western or an eagle in the wilderness.  Then you hear the powerful screaming call of the bird which sounds something like “Key-eee-air!  Guess what?  That’s not the call of a vulture or an eagle.  Most vultures don’t make calls and Bald Eagles sound much wimpier.  That famous call is actually coming from a Red-tailed Hawk.  If you want to hear the call for yourself, click here.  The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common hawk in North America and can often be seen perching on telephone poles or trees along highways.  Why do these hawks hang out around highways?  Let’s just say they really enjoy fresh meat.  When they’re not feasting on roadkill, these opportunistic hawks hunt small mammals, birds and reptiles.  One time, my sister was visiting a zoo and was observing the prairie dog exhibit.  Suddenly, a Red-tailed Hawk swooped down, grabbed one of the poor prairie dogs, and flew off!  Everyone there was pretty shocked but this just illustrates one of the reasons why these hawks are so successful.  The destruction of forest habitat doesn’t affect Red-tails as much as other hawks as they are very adaptable and thrive in open areas.

SANY0059 SANY0009

(Red-tailed Hawks that I handled at the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis.  Notice the distinctive tail for which the hawk is named.)

A close relative of the Red-tailed Hawk is the Augur Buzzard.  Now many Americans tend to equate the term ‘buzzard’ with vultures.  Buzzards are actually species of hawks that live in Eurasia and Africa.  Most likely, earlier settlers in America called vultures ‘buzzards’ because they appeared similar to the buzzards in Europe.  Anyway, Augur Buzzards come in two phases; light and dark.  The dark ones are often brooding and angry while the light ones are cheerful and playful.  I worked with an Augur Buzzard at the World Bird Sanctuary and she was a very well behaved bird.


(Augur Buzzard)

Another cool hawk is the Swainson’s Hawk.  This bird breeds in western North America and spends its winters in Argentina.  Swainson’s Hawks migrate in huge flocks and according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, some individuals may travel as many as 6214 miles!  These hawks sometimes eat grasshoppers and I think it would be quite entertaining to watch a young hawk attempt to catch a fast grasshopper.


(Swainson’s Hawk)

Finally, I come to my favorite hawk of all, the Harris’ Hawk.  Why is the Harris’ Hawk my favorite hawk?  Let me tell you!  First of all, the eyes of Harris’ Hawks change color with each season.  Sky blue in the winter, light green in the spring, red in the summer and orange in the fall.  Okay, I made that up.  But it would be totally awesome if it was true.  Harris’ Hawks are unique among raptors in that they often hunt in packs.  Sometimes they will all converge on their prey and other times, one hawk will flush out a rabbit while the others wait in ambush.  Hunting in packs has proven to be much more effective than when the hawks hunt alone.  The only problem is, sometimes the hawks disagree on what they want for supper.  “Hey Johnny!  Let’s go get a rabbit!”  “No Benji, I’m in the mood for something reptilian tonight.”  Harris’ Hawks often live in family groups and will even help a couple raise young.  The best part about Harris’ Hawks, in my opinion, is that they stack!  What happens is one Harris’ Hawk will land on a cactus.  Then another will ball up his/her talons and land on the first hawk’s shoulders!  Sometimes a third hawk will then stack on the first two!  What is this good for?  Scientists aren’t completely sure.  Some think that the hawks stack to gain a better perspective of their surroundings when they are not flying.  Another possibility is that stacking is a bonding exercise that helps establish hierarchical order.

When I interned at the World Bird Sanctuary, I got to interact with several Harris’ Hawks.  They were well behaved birds with great personalities and a lot of fun to work with!  Sometimes when I would get a Harris’ Hawk ready for training, he/she would excitedly jump up and down on my glove.  Several times I got to engage in a falconry training exercise called a ‘hawk walk’.  I would walk outside while a hawk followed me around.  Then I would call the hawk down to my glove where it would receive a tasty reward.  Then I would release the hawk and the process would continue.  I’ve posted this picture before but for your entertainment . . .


(birds-of-prey tumblr)

Feel free to switch the term ‘Harris Hawking’ for stacking.  You can Harris Hawk dishes or pancakes or movies.  You can also name your fantasy football team, ‘The Stack Attack’.  Endless possibilities are now at your disposal!  Also, there is an incredibly cool experience called parahawking where you can paraglide with Egyptian Vultures or Harris’ Hawks!  Google parahawking and you’ll find some awesome videos!  My next post will dive (pun intended) into the world of Falcons and Eagles.  May you scream like a Red-tailed Hawk and may your children enjoy grasshoppers like a Swainson’s Hawk!  Wait, did that come out right?


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