Sunday, December 16, 2012

Creature Feature: Harris Hawk.

When we think "pack hunters," or even "social animals," wolves are usually the first things that pop into people's heads. Next up are dolphins and, by a stretch, Velociraptors. Sure, our image of the Velociraptor has changed over time, but we're still pretty sure they hunted in packs.

But wait a sec. Raptors -the dinosaurs, not the birds - used to be extremely effective pack hunters. Dinosaurs evolved into birds, right? Why aren't there any birds who hunt like that?


The good news is that there is one type of hawk, the Harris's Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus), that hunts as a family pack. It is native from the southwestern  U.S. of A. down to Chile and Argentina. The name comes from Edward Harris, a friend of the famous John James Audubon. Birds of a feather flock together, yes?

Harris's hawks are nicknamed "wolves of the sky." They are the only birds of prey that hunt in groups. By that, I do not mean that they mob an animal and call it a pack hunt. We're talking actual, calculated attacks that even groups of humans have trouble pulling off. Here's a look at one hunt courtesy of National Geographic.

Let's look at a little play-by-play of this video: First, one Harris's Hawk sees the jackrabbit. The same hawk then chases the rabbit out of wherever it's hiding. By some clever signaling, another hawk knows exactly where that bunny will run, and has its razor-sharp talons ready and waiting. Bravo, let's have dinner.

Compare this to the lupine strategy. Both wolves and the Harris's Hawks will make their prey run. The stamina of a wolf allows it to run prey down until it is exhausted; the Harris's Hawk knows exactly what direction its prey will flee in. Your mileage may vary on which is more impressive, but I will say this: the genes for pack hunting have been with archosaurs a lot longer than they have been with canids.

Worry not, Jurassic Park fans. Your intelligent, group-coordinating Velociraptors are alive and well. That same cunning and coordination has, as with many traits of dinosaurs, taken to the skies. If you're looking into falconry, yes, Harris's Hawks are easily tamed and very popular; you can get a raptor of your very own.

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