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    This week we will be focusing on the most popular bird in Falconry today. This is the Harris' Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus). (Some authorities refer to this bird as The Bay Winged hawk.) It's natural range includes the southern United States and it is found well into South America being found in Central Chile and Argentina. Originally a bird of patchy woodland and scrub with scattered trees this hugely adaptable raptor has colonised completely different ecosystems as its natural habitat has been considerably reduced by clearing of land for agricultural use. The Harris is found in tight social groups with a strict pecking order with a dominant matriarch at the head. Subordinates will assist in the rearing of offspring in the somewhat harsh environment thus increasing access to resources and therefore reproductive success.

    Immature Female Harris' Hawk

    This bird is unlikely to be confused with any other raptor at rest but in flight the broad wings might cause some confusion with some of the buzzards( Buteo sp.) especially in wild populations where soaring is common. The adults are a striking chocolate brown to black colour punctuated at the base and tip of the tail with snow white markings. Immature individuals are more chestnut coloured with dark brown and buff streaking.

    The nests of the Harris' hawk can vary from a seemingly haphazard to quite substantial construction. 2-3 eggs are generally laid from December to April - a similar breeding period to the captive population.

    Wild populations feed on a great diversity of prey species depending on the habitat they occupy. Desert populations may hunt jack rabbits whereas central American populations take mostly birds with a few small mammals and occasionally lizards and snakes. They are also quite elastic in their choice of hunting strategy. They can hunt Harrier - like - a slow quartering flight over open marshes or grassland or undertake short pursuit flights/dashes like the Accipters ( Sparrow hawks etc).

    The Harris Hawk In Falconry

    The Harris' hawk is an exceptional bird for the person new to falconry. Having stated this - there are many people who will never see the need to progress from a Harris' hawk as a good one can be as spectacular and rewarding as a goshawk with none of the frustrating tendencies of the latter.

    Mature female Harris' Hawk

    However, due to the abundance of juvenile birds in the summer and perhaps the degree of inbreeding expected to have occured over recent years, many of the Harris's currently at large in this country will never realise their true potential, but more of this later.

    Because it is an intelligent and often social bird in the wild the Harris' hawk is relatively easy to train. It will quickly learn that it's owner is the source of food and can be trained from "wild" to flying free in two weeks. (This is not meant as a guideline - I think that too many new falconers take these statements too literally and get frustrated if their hawk is not completely trained in 10 days due to the much flaunted statements about the "easiness" of these hawks. Every bird is different and should be judged on it's individual characteristics) When flying free these birds are one of the few species that can be flown together (Termed a "cast") with groups of ten plus being possible. In these situations however you must be aware that unless the birds are flown together on a regular basis squabbles are likely to occur as the pecking order is sorted out, particularly between mature females.

    In the U.K. Harris's are the ubiquitous "Display Hawk" being very cooperative and steady in most situations. Private owners tend to use their birds for hunting purposes. Harris's will take a variety of game species - the commonest being rabbits but they are quite capable of taking prey such as pheasant & partridge when they are physically fit.

    It should be noted that there is a great deal of difference between a good Harris' and a bad one. Because they are relatively easy to breed and quite affordable these days they are many peoples first choice bird for Falconry. As a first bird they are ideal but many are falling into irresponsible hands and therefore they will never reach the heights they are capable of obtaining. Because they are quite intelligent they quickly realise the connection between cause and effect and the development of bad habits and even behavioural problems often result. This coupled with the misinformation that these are "weekend birds" that can be left during the week and only flown intermittently has led to abuse of the Harris' by many would be falconers. Before any raptor is acquired the potential owner must commit his/her time to it in the long term. Only then will these magnificent birds reveal their true potential.

    Written for Cheshire WaterLife by Tristan Lougher B.Sc.