Harris Hawk

Parabuteo unicinctus

Order: Accipitriformes


Any Documents to attach, species spotlights, etc.

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

    • This depends on whether you are using the bird in free-flight programs or not. If you are using the bird year round in free flight programs the enclosure should be of ample size. If the bird has a wing injury or is not flighted, the enclosure could be smaller. There is no right answer, but you need to make sure you have ample perching and places for shelter.
    • In areas where the temperature drops below freezing the species should be given an over head heat source.
    • US Fish and Wildlife Service recommends for fully flighted birds a chamber of the following dimensions: Length – 12 feet; Width – 8 feet; Height – 7 feet
    • USFWS recommendations for a chamber for nonflighted or tethered birds are the following dimensions: Length – 8 feet; Width – 8 feet; Height – 7 feet
    • Heat can also be offered through infra-red heat panels mounted next to a perch or by using heated perches (which are hard to find but can be made by electricians with experience using low voltage heating elements)

Diet Requirements

  • In the wild, this species mainly eats small to medium sized rodents. It is also known to take birds – often in flight – and lizards. It can take mammals up to the size of a full-grown rabbit. If prey is in short supply, birds may also eat carrion.
  • In captivity, they are fed quail, chicks, mice and rats, ducklings. In addition, small mammals such as squirrel and chipmunk can be fed as long as they are approved by your veterinarian. Some individuals will also eat venison if offered, but this should not be a permanent food supply.
  • If you are food scheduling this species for a free-flight program it is important to monitor weight often. The bird can become aggressive towards food if weight is kept to low.

Veterinary Concerns

  • In colder climates be sure to monitor weight. This species should be heavier in the winter months to insulate against cold.
  • Different style perches of differing materials will help prevent bumble foot.

Notes on Enrichment & Training

  • Having ample perching space is a must. A good form of enrichment for any hawk species is to change the perching structure on a regular basis.
  • Another form of enrichment is scheduling a variety of food.
  • This species is very responsive to positive reinforcement training and a quick learner. It is a very popular species for free-flight bird shows, and their is a wealth of information available on training the species.
  • Birds can be trained to use enrichment devices such as kongs or PVC with food in them.
  • Some birds like to shred paper.
  • At Zoo Atlanta our mews have plexi-glass windows and our Harris’ hawk spends the majority of his time perched in front of this window.
  • Diet management for free flight demonstrations should be done with an understanding of the process and considerations. The decision to diet manage should not be taken lightly.


Colony or Breeding Management

Notes species is housed or managed socially or for breeding purposes.

Individual Identification

Dimorphism or practiced ways to individually mark species (such as those in colonies, like giant millipedes).

Programmatic Information


Temperature Guidelines



Tips on Presentation

  • A low flyer that will come very close to the audience. Before flying make sure to tell the audience to not reach for the bird.

Touching Techniques

Tips on Handling

  • Glove training with positive reinforcement works well.
  • Transport box suggestions AZAs Ambassador Animals dialog, Raptor Rig and Varikennel.
  • A couple things to keep in mind, if using the handle on the top of the transport box do not rest the bottom on your hip. It will cause the box to bounce, this might lead to an uncomfortable ride and decrease the likelihood that the bird will go in the box on future occasions. If the perch is to low for the bird, their tail feathers may get painted with fecal matter which does not look good on presentation. Varikennel you are able to adjust the height of the perch.


Potential Messaging

  • Importance of birds of prey in the food web (pest control).
  • This is one of the only species of hawk that practices cooperative foraging.
  • Adaptations for food (feet and beak = carnivore). keen eyesight.

Acquisition Information

  • This bird is fairly common to acquire, but it is best to research a reputable source with a good track record. Avoid buying from places that sell birds in large quantities.
  • Some feel that it is good to work with a hand reared Harris’ hawk but there has also been some anecdotal information indicating hand raised hawks can become aggressive to handlers once they reach sexual maturity. Many parent reared birds have been successfully used in programs so it may not be worth the risk to work with a hand reared bird.

Comments from the Rating System

  • Seneca Park Zoo: Very good species for flying in educational programs. Very responsive to training.
  • Buffalo Zoo: For experienced bird of prey handlers, this species can be very easy to train.
  • Philadelphia Zoo: Tends to be a flightier species, but responsive to training.

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

This bird is very common in a large area from the southwestern United States, southward into most of the South American continent. There is evidence that this species is also spreading northwards into the United States. Variants have been reported as far north as Wisconsin, but this is unusual.

Its favored habitat is sparse woodland or semi-desert, especially near water.

Physical Description

Adults are dark, sooty black-brown in color with a flashy white rump and a white band at the tip of the tail. The shoulders and thighs are chestnut. They have a yellow “brow” over the eyes; this shields the eyes from the bright sun of the desert.

Average length is 18 to 23 inches with a 40 to 47 inch wingspan. Males weigh 500 to 750 grams, and females weigh 750 to 1300 grams.

Life Cycle

Harris hawks build flat platform nests anywhere from 7 to 30 feet off the ground in mesquite or saguaro cactus. 2 to 4 eggs are laid per clutch, which hatch after 33 to 36 days of incubation.

Females may have two mates. All three birds will nest together. The second male will help in rearing the young, bringing food to the family, and defending the nest. In a monogamous pair, both birds share all tasks evenly.

Harris hawks live about 14 years in the wild and 20 years in captivity.


In scrublands, a Harris hawk will perch in low trees and dash through the underbrush to flush out prey. In open areas, these hawks soar in high circles. This aggressive bird will hunt in packs, similar to wolves, to capture larger prey.

A single Harris hawk will often be found roosting on cacti with other Harris hawks “stacked” upon the shoulders of the bird below them. This is due to lack of roosting space in the desert.

Harris hawks do migrate, but there is no migration pattern. They will either go north or south, whichever is less inclement.
This species will sometimes practices polyandry with two males mating with one female.

Threats and Conservation Status

Common predators include great horned owls, coyotes, and common ravens. Electrocution from power lines is the cause for the loss of half of the population of breeding hawks.

Harris hawks are not listed as threatened or endangered, nor are they included on the list of Wildlife of Special Concern. However, they are protected from harassment and illegal shooting by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Prejudices against birds of prey still persist among many who wrongly believe that they harm wildlife or present major threats to domestic animals. Biological studies have documented their ecological importance as major controls on rodent populations. Some birds of prey feed on snakes, insects or other potential pests. No species of raptor poses a significant threat to domestic animals.

Instruct guests to never litter, especially when they are in a car. Throwing trash out along the roads not only makes the roads less attractive, but can also attract animals to the sides of the road. Some of these animals might look appetizing to an owl, hawk, or other predator which are then more likely to be hit by passing vehicles.

Did you know…

  • When diving, Harris hawks can reach 150 miles per hour.
  • Harris hawks help out farmers by controlling pest populations, thus reducing the destruction of crops.
  • The Harris hawk is also called the Bay-winged hawk.
  • This species was described by the great American naturalist Audubon, and is said to have been named after his friend, Colonel Edward Harris, who was with him when he first saw it.



Contributors and Citations

  • The Philadelphia Zoo
  • Nashville Zoo at Grassmere
  • Zoo Atlanta

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