Harris’s Hawks (Parabuteo unicinctus harrisi) are among America’s largest hawks. They were named by John J. Audubon after his friend and financier Colonel Edward Harris. They are also called the “wolves of the sky”. They are one of two species of communal hawk in the world. The other being the Galapagos Hawk. Harris’ Hawks are scattered from South America to the southwest United States. In the US they are found typically in semiarid habitats (savannas, chaparrals, scrub prairies, and mesquite and saguaro deserts) but also in marshes.
They can nest on cactus and often stand on the backs of their talons to avoid being skewered by spines. Harris’s Hawks can withstand temperatures in excess of 115 degrees Fahrenheit and do not need open water, as they get can enough moisture from their prey. They enjoy drinking and bathing very much though! Harris’s Hawks are social birds: each pack or “troop” is a family group governed by an “alpha pair”. Often the young stay in the family and help raise the new brood.
Harris’s Hawks are social hunters: each member of the troop takes on a specific role in pursuit of quarry. Individuals with recognized behavioral hunting roles include “flushers”, “chasers”, “turners” and “killers”. Like other birds of prey, Harris’s Hawks provide critical environmental services, including removal of dead animals and control of rodent and pest populations. We don’t have any systematic survey of the original Southern California population, but 50 years ago we had about 100 individuals. Today it is unclear if any breeding pairs survive in California - last year biologists counted only two lone birds: one in the proposed 'Sunrise Power Link' development area, the other in the town of Borrego Springs.
Harris's Hawks are declining in California. They are prone to electrocution on power poles due to their behavioral patterns and communal nature – alpha pairs prefer to perch close to each other on neighboring poles, and often touch wingtips when stretching or taking flight. This can (and often does) result in electrocution of the alpha male and alpha female. Many other raptor species (and bird species in general) also suffer great losses from electrocution on power lines and associated equipment.