Harris’s Hawk in Colorado: Is it a Lifer or is it Unnatural?

This winter, we’ve had an unusual visitor to northeastern Colorado: a Harris’s hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus). Normally a resident of southernmost Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, this chocolate-brown and chestnut-red hawk is far from home. Back in December, a friend told me about this vagrant* after the hawk had been reliably sighted roosting in trees belonging to a recycling center adjacent to a local natural area. Having only seen Harris’s hawks in captivity, I was eager to see one in the wild so I could add it to my life list.

It took me four separate trips to the natural area in order to spot the hawk. When Guy Turenne, photographer, said the same thing (“four visits before I saw him”), I jokingly named the bird “Four Visit Harry.” That is how I think of him, even though I don’t know whether the bird is male or female.

Harris's_G.Turenne
Four Visit Harry, the Harris’s hawk living in Fort Collins, CO (photo by Guy Turenne)

My weekend trips to see Harry were both several hours long, and I met lots of friendly birders who like me did not get to see him then. I made a mid-day stop at the natural area on a weekday and had the place to myself. Again, I failed to see Harry, but was encouraged by several false alarms. The first was a dark shape in one of the trees others identified as a favorite perch for the hawk. I saw it a few minutes after arriving and thought “gotcha!” only I was wrong. As I got closer, the “bird” climbed down the branch, morphing into a squirrel. As I walked the trail, I spotted red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) overhead, but they didn’t fool me for long.

On the way back, I again got a “That’s it!” shock when a hawk with white on the tail erupted out of the grass ahead of me. Fortunately, I got a really good look at it, even though there was a tree between us most of the time, and I realized at once it was missing the other key markings — the nearly dark brown back with red-brown wing patches. So I knew I was looking at a juvenile northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) and not a Harris’s hawk within a few minutes. Still, I found it exciting rather than disappointing. It was the closest I’ve ever been to a harrier. I had to go home for lunch and thought: This is a great day for hawks. So I ran some Christmas errands, then went back to the natural area for the fourth time.

HarrisVsHarrier
Diagram by Kit Dunsmore

After scanning the big patch of trees in the recycling area and seeing nothing, I took the trail that ran behind the center. There, I met two young men with binoculars and a spotting scope. For the first time, my question (“Have you seen the Harris’s?”) was met with a yes. They pointed back to the trees I had just scanned and then I saw it, a dark blob with red-brown wing patches, sitting lower in the trees than I had originally looked. It flew off only a few minutes later, so I had only just caught it. The birders asked me if it was a lifer (if I would count this as my first Harris’s hawk for the list of all the bird species I’ve seen in my life). I was excited to be able to say it was. What I didn’t realize is not everyone would agree with me about that.

A bird like this Harris’s hawk is often referred to as “vagrant” or “accidental.” Usually, birds far from home get lost during migration, blown off course by a storm, or losing their way because they are inexperienced or sick. But Harris’s hawks don’t migrate. They are considered permanent residents of their range, so any individual very far outside that range is hard to explain. In fact, National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America is rather adamant that a Harris’s hawk out of its territory escaped from or was released by a falconer. Period.

After I read that, I realized my “lifer” was in jeopardy. The American Birding Association (ABA) has rules for keeping a life list, and one of those rules is that the bird you count can’t have been transported by humans to the place where you saw it. Understandably, they consider this an unnatural situation, even though the bird is flying free at the time of sighting. If Four Visit Harry is a falconer’s bird, then I can’t count him. But there’s no way for me to tell if he is or isn’t. And I confess I find myself miffed at the thought that someone who trained, maybe even raised, a hawk for falconry would release it nearly 700 miles from its natural habitat. Surely falconers are more responsible and ethical than that.

Harris’s hawks do not migrate, but they must disperse after fledging, which is the one time they might move into new territory. eBird maps show these hawks are being spotted much farther north in New Mexico and Texas then their historical range allows for, and I doubt all of these are lost falconry birds. There are even rare individuals who have been seen as far north as Montana.

I would rather think these out-of-range hawks are pioneers moving out into new territory, that Four Visit Harry is a maverick with wanderlust, rather than some falconer’s escaped bird. But I have no proof either way. Maybe he did hitch a ride here, but Harry is making a living on the prairie despite being away from home and without other hawks to help him hunt. (Harris’s hawks hunt in groups.) And my sighting of him (though it required some help from other birders) felt natural to me. Fortunately, I am not actually submitting my life list to the ABA. I am keeping it for my own pleasure. Considering our long and colorful history, I’ve decided that Four Visit Harry is a lifer.

*Vagrant is one of the terms birders use to describe birds far out of their recognized range. I prefer the term “maverick.”

Raptors Fly Free at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

While I was in Tucson in February, I was fortunate enough to spend a day that the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Despite the name, the Museum is really a bunch of things: botanical garden, zoo, aquarium, and museum, all dedicated to species that are native to Arizona. I’d visited once before when I was living in Phoenix in the 80s and what I remembered were the remarkable aviaries — huge netted areas you could walk through, observing the birds up close. But this trip, I was struck by the birds that truly fly free.

The Museum has two Raptor Free-Flights a day, and they are exactly what they sound like. The birds fly into an open desert area and perch on the trees and cacti there, encouraged to do so by trainers who leave them treats.

An ASDM trainer sets food on a natural perch to entice a raptor to land there.
An ASDM trainer sets food on a natural perch to entice a raptor to land there. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

There are no nets, no jesses, no hoods, nothing to constrain or hold the birds in any way. The only fence is a railing to keep people on the section of path that the raptors fly over. Visitors are warned to keep their hands and cameras below their heads in case the birds come near, and it was good advice. The birds swooped right over us, close enough to touch.

During the Free Flight we watched, they let out a barn owl, and then a family group of Harris’s hawks.

A barn owl perching during a Raptor Free Flight.
A barn owl perching during the Raptor Free Flight program. Photo by Kit Dunsmore
One of the four Harris's hawks that came out for the Free Flight.
One of the four Harris’s hawks that came out for the Free Flight. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

While one of the trainers told us about them, the raptors perched nearby, flew overhead, and otherwise captivated those watching. The birds sleep in cages, but are let out daily. Sometimes they come out, sometimes they don’t. They aren’t forced to do anything. They are fed well, live comfortably, and given the chance to fly away and never return on a daily basis. But they don’t. Some were raised in captivity, but others started out wild, became injured and were rehabilitated. The trainer who spoke after the Free Flight was over told us that the birds have it cushy and know it. Apparently their instincts aren’t strong enough to inspire them to leave the museum for good.

A Harris's hawk with a trainer, free to come and go as she pleases.
A Harris’s hawk with a trainer, free to come and go as she pleases. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

Just because it’s comfy in their cages doesn’t mean the birds come back right away. Occasionally, a bird will hunt and spend a few hours on top of a saguaro picking at the kill, or will spend an entire night sleeping out in the desert, ignoring the signal that tells the raptors that invites them to return to their home base.

I was awe-struck by the faith the trainers showed in the raptors. They let them choose what they will do and trust them to come home again when they are ready. Watching the hawks circling together overhead and sensing how natural it was for them only made the fact that they do come back day after day all the more remarkable. They clearly love to fly. But life at the Museum is not to be discarded lightly. As long as they keep getting time to fly free and hunt if they wish, the raptors are content to return to their cages when day is done. They seem to know that the choice is theirs.

Harris's hawk perched on a saguaro.
Harris’s hawk perched on a saguaro. Photo by Kit Dunsmore