The Harris's Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) is one of my very favorite raptors. It is a hawk of the brush country of south and west Texas where it is at home in a harsh environment where most other hawks could not exist for long. The bird shown here was photographed from a blind in Starr Co., Texas in July 1995 with a Canon T-90 and Sigma 500 mm F4.5 lens on Fuji Sensia. Following will be images from Hidalgo Co., Texas in early 2006. One bird is an immature (streaked breast) which had only been out of the nest a month or so, while the other is a sub-adult. These shots were digital images taken with a Canon EOS 1 D Mark II and EF 500mm F/4 L IS lens and 1.4X extender. Scroll down again for more photos from February, 2006 and later. In 1996, I was asked to write a piece about Harris's Hawks for an upcoming book about 50 of John O'Neil's bird paintings, one of which was this species. The book, Great Texas Birds, was published by the University of Texas Press in late 1999 and my account appears alongside a beautiful painting by John of a Harris's Hawk. The piece I wrote carries with it a little of the "flavor" of this bird, so I have copied it below.
The south Texas brush country is forbidding and unforgiving in the eyes of most travelers. Everything has thorns, needles, or spikes of some sort. Yet, on a crisp December morning a number of years ago as my wife and I drove along an isolated Texas Ranch Road in Duval County, I remember how at home I felt in this ecosystem often known as the Tamaulipan Thorn Forest. Far ahead of us on a phone pole I saw two dark shapes side by side on the cross bar. I remarked to Cheryl that we were approaching two Harris' Hawks. "How do you know they are Harris' Hawks?" she asked. "Well," I replied, "they are sitting right next to one another. Not many hawks do that." As we got closer we stopped to watch the pair of hawks as the morning sun brought out the richness of their chocolate brown breast and body with bright rufous leggings and shoulders. As the hawks stood together shoulder to shoulder, I remember Cheryl turning to me and saying "I guess Harris' Hawks like to snuggle."
The Harris' Hawk is a medium sized buteo that is one of the most characteristic birds of south Texas. In the United States, the species also occurs in parts of New Mexico and Arizona, but it is south Texas where the bird really has its stronghold. The bird often forages on ground squirrels, wood rats, and other rodents in its thorn-forest habitat, but it has also been known to take snakes and birds up to night-heron and duck size and is thought by some to feed on carrion from time to time. To folks from the eastern or northern United States, the word "forest" might seem a significant overstatement when they first view the ten-foot-high mesquite, acacia, and agarito scrub. A brief walk into these areas will, however, quickly demonstrate that the word "thorn" is very appropriate. This is the habitat that the Harris' Hawk loves.
Harris' Hawks have been described by some observers as having a dual personality, a sort of Jekyll and Hyde character. Usually the bird is seen sitting quietly, apparently watching the day go by with a casual indifference. But when hunting, the bird transforms into an active and relentless predator. Some of its hunting habits seem more Accipiter-like than Buteo-like. I have watched these birds dive into the thorny brush with reckless abandon as they pursue a meal. Somehow the hawk pops out of the brush, seemingly none the worse off from its thorny experience, and usually with its intended prey.
Harris' Hawks are residents of south Texas and can be found fairly commonly all 12 months of the year. There is evidence that some numbers of these birds withdraw into Mexico during the winter, but certainly a substantial percentage of the population remains in Texas all year. They seem to be just as happy in 110-degree heat on a summer day or perched on a windmill in sub-freezing temperatures when a "blue norther" marches through the state in the winter. Harris' Hawks hunt from a stationary perch or on the wing; they seem just as effective either way. Each September, there is an organized hawk watch near Corpus Christi where observers tally migrant Broad-winged Hawks and other raptors as they move through Texas. It always surprises me when I pick up a dot with my binoculars, high in the sky, and I can see the characteristic white-black-white tail pattern of a Harris' Hawk. Sometimes Harris' Hawks seem to ride high on the thermals and briefly join the migrant Broad-wingeds just for the fun of it. I've watched a Harris' Hawk soar with a migrant stream of Broad-wingeds or Swainson's Hawks as if enjoying the parade. As often as not, the Harris' will eventually drop away while I watch and return to more earthly altitudes and the thorn-forest habitat it loves.
Harris' Hawks seem to enjoy each other's company far more than other raptors do. It is not unusual to find several birds hunting, resting, or just hanging around together. There are accounts of apparent cooperative hunting by several of these birds as they cruise over ponds and brush together to flush prey. More often than not, if you see two or more hawks perched on the same pole in south Texas, they will be Harris' Hawks.
As in most raptors, female Harris' Hawks are a little larger than males. When two Harris' Hawks are seen perched near one another you can often detect a noticeable size difference, indicating a probable mated pair.
Harris' Hawks seem to be increasing their range somewhat in recent years. They are showing up with increasing frequency in central and even parts of north Texas. The species has even showed up north of Texas, in Oklahoma and even farther. In November, 1994, Cheryl and I were driving along a road in Cochran County, just west of Lubbock, Texas. This is an area far to the north of the typical Harris' Hawk range, yet we found 11 of them within a one-mile stretch of road, and 6 were perched together in one small tree. I was amazed at this out-of-range discovery and kept pointing at the birds saying to Cheryl, "Look, those are all Harris' Hawks!" She looked at me and calmly said, "Well, sure they are, and they are all snuggling together." And indeed they were.
|The next 9 shots of Harris's Hawks were taken in February, 2006, in Hidalgo Co., Texas with a Canon EOS 1D Mark II and EF 500mm F/4 L IS lens.|
|The bird shown here is immature, probably about 8 months old.|
|immature Harris's Hawk in flight.|
|The same immature bird in a squabble over a food item with a sub-adult bird.|
|The shot shown here illustrates a typical family group of Harris's Hawks. They often hunt in groups and will remain together to one degree or another throughout the year. This particular family group has remained near the headquarters of a south Texas ranch for several years. This shot shows three generations of the same family with the adult at the top, a sub-adult in the middle and a juvenile bird at the bottom. Every image on this page, until noted otherwise, except the 1995 shot at the very beginning, is of one of these three birds. They are wild birds, but accustomed to the ranch owners.|
|The next shots were all taken in spring and early summer, 2006, at the same location and with the same equipment as previous images.|
|The bird here is holding a White-winged Dove.|
|The same hawk as the previous shot still working on the dove.|
|A rat is the prey item on this occasion.|
|The hawk shown here has a Ruthiven's Whipsnake as prey. This snake had been hit on a nearby highway and I placed the mortally injured snake on the ground where the hawk could see it, then got into a nearby photo blind.|
|The next 12 images on this page were taken of an adult Harris's Hawk in Hidalgo Co., Texas, in April, 2007, with a Canon EOS 1D Mark II and EF 500mm F/4 L IS lens.|
|The immature Harris's Hawk shown here was in Starr Co., Texas, in May, 2010. This shot was taken with a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV and an EF 800mm F/5.6 L IS lens.|