Harris’s Hawks I Know

OGeorge put a request in comments that I say something about the Harris’s hawks in the blog banner.

When saying anything about falconry, it’s best to state up front that all this activity occurs under state and federal supervision and permitting. Diane and I hold master’s falconry licenses through California state and report to the federal office of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon. All trapping of hawks occurs during prescribed times of year and with additional permits as required. Hunting with the hawks is in compliance with the set hunting periods for taking game with falconry, and we have current hunting licenses from California.

“Rusty” is a female Harris’s hawk featured in four of the photos in the banner. Diane trapped Rusty as a passage bird in 1991 near Hebbronville, Texas, sort of as a graduation present to herself for her master’s degree in biomedical engineering. I wasn’t there; I was already relocated to Richland, Washington, where I was working for Battelle’s Pacific Northwest Laboratories. I visited the Fort Worth area at Christmas that year, and Diane brought Rusty over to Janice Bauer’s house. Janice had collies, and Rusty gave her opinion of “coyotes” loudly and often, which is why she is named “Rusty”: it sounded like a rusty hinge to us.

Rusty’s arrival proved a turning point in our falconry activities. We had had kestrels and a red-shouldered hawk before, and our attempts to turn these birds into hunters simply did not work well. We were ignorant and timid, I think. Once we started putting Rusty up over game, things quickly changed.

Rusty was a driven hunter. I don’t know that we taught her much of anything, but we sure learned a lot from her. Mice, rats, and cottontails started things off. She then showed us that she really wanted to hunt upland birds: quail, chukar partridge, and pheasant. But the real surprise to us was her sudden interest in ducks. We were then living next to the designated flood basin of the Yakima river, and there were ducks down on the river. Rusty found that she could fly up to a tree overlooking shallow water here and sometimes surprise a duck in very shallow water.

Rusty and I have developed a rapport that I think is unusual between falconer and bird. There was a research project, “Deep Hear”, that took me away from home for two and a half months. I was sure that I would have to re-establish an acquaintance with Rusty on my return, as she is very suspicious of strangers. But Rusty hardly batted an eye, and we went right back into our earlier routines. I have been able to convince Rusty to return to me even when she is pretty full and would otherwise simply veg out in a tree and enjoy the weather. Rusty shows a definite preference for coming to me for food before anyone else, including Diane.

One of the photos in the banner shows two male Harris’s hawks perched on a padded backpack frame that I wear in the field. (More photos can be seen on this page.) Diane and I applied for non-resident take of Harris’s hawks from Arizona state in 2002. We each received a tag for a Harris’s hawk. We made a trip to the Tucson area in June 2002 to visit with Jeffrey Shallit and his family (then on sabbatical in the area) and to see if we could find our Harris’s hawks. Tucson’s Harris hawk population seemed to be in trouble; the only families we could find were at the Sweetwater waste water treatment plant and in the city cemetery. In November, Diane and I attended the 2002 Vizsla Nationals in Prescott, Arizona, and followed up by asking Jamaica Smith where to find trappable passage Harris’s hawks. Jamaica not only gave us advice, but flew down to Phoenix and met us at her apprentice’s home there. It turns out that the northern suburbs of Phoenix have a high population density of Harris’s hawks, and we were able to catch our two males within a 24 hour period there. The usual minor injuries to the humans led us to give them the names, “Biter” and “Beater”, from the elven-swords in “The Hobbit”. It is Diane’s hobby to propose alternative names to these. “Biter” she is now calling “Shelby”, but she hasn’t yet come up with another name for “Beater”. We were able to take them on their first free flights as falconry birds within a month of trapping. That’s perhaps not speedy in relation to what other falconers do, but it represented an improvement for us.

Flying Harris’s hawks in a cast is something that is pretty new in falconry. These birds are unique in their cooperative hunting techniques, and flying them in a cast allows the falconer to see something of what their life in the wild is like. Since Diane and I are wildlife biologists as well as falconers, we have a special appreciation for observing these behaviors.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

6 thoughts on “Harris’s Hawks I Know

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  • 2004/05/13 at 7:31 am

    Hi Wesley!
    So glad to get your update, I tried before and was concerned when I couldn’t get it. I tried to reach your parents so now I understand why I could’nt get them. You seem to be doing so much better!!!!!!!!
    Tell your yours parents hello for me. Best wishes to you.

  • 2005/04/15 at 6:04 pm

    good reading, i just got done with my first season with a female harris bred by bill murphy in the santa cruz ca area , she was awsome from the start second day loose she pounded a bush trying on a rabbit , no catch, fourth day loose caught a 7lb jack rabbit! her first kill!! ended up with 18 jack rabbits and 44 cotton tails between oct 2004- mar2005, waits on in 40mph wind at200ft , scared of not much, a dream bird to work with, cant wait till this molt is over to get back out there!!!

  • 2005/04/16 at 6:08 am

    Diane and I were able to visit Murphy’s various mews a few years ago. He has quite the propagation setup going. It sounds like you’ve got a definite winner of a bird, Dave. Here’s looking forward to the 2005-2006 season…

  • 2005/11/28 at 7:06 am

    nice article. I have been flying Harris’s since 1984 here in California. At that time group flying was common with as many as 10 in the field at the same time, not a new thing. Bill Murphy is a great breeder and I also recommend his birds.As to falconry terminology, flying 2 males together is called a “brace,” not a cast. thanks

  • 2006/01/28 at 11:21 am

    Flying Harris Hawks is new in that it has only been done for a few decades while falconry is centuries old. There was a time when red-tails (another new world species) were flown and Harris Hawks were still considered carrion eaters and untried in falconry.

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