Beaks and Feet – Harris’s Hawk

Harris’s Hawk

One of the main distinguishing features of any bird is its beak. Of course, beaks come in all sizes and shapes and are a great tool for helping us to identify what kind of bird we are seeing. Many times beaks tell us where a bird lives and what it eats.

The other very easily identifiable feature of any bird is its feet. Feet may also tell us where a bird lives. Different species have adapted physical characteristics that enable them to make the most of their environment. Let’s look at an¬†obvious one.

A hawk is a hunter. All raptors are hunters, but today’s focus is Harris’s Hawk. They are known to be cooperative hunters which means they will hunt with other hawks in order to increase the odds of having a successful IMG_3491outcome….obtaining food. In the case of hawks this may be squirrels, other birds (frequently caught on the wing), chipmunks, snakes, mice, ducks, lizards, rabbits and probably a small dog or cat if the opportunity presented itself.

They have powerful talons with curving claws and when they spot their prey and begin their feet-first diving descent to capture it, the talons lock onto the prey and tighten much like a zip tie. So a hawk’s feet are designed to catch their food. Struggle as they may, the seized prey very rarely can escape the powerful grasp of those talons.

Their beaks are large, powerful and hooked which enables a hawk to rip and shred the flesh of the unfortunate small mammal that will be breakfast or dinner. Using this bill is a skill that is taught to their young. At first, chicks are fed by their parents. They rip the flesh into tiny pieces and gently place it in the mouths of their young. As the babies grow, the parents may drop a dead chipmunk into the nest and the babies begin pecking and pulling at it. This is a prelude to them actually being able to tear the flesh for themselves. The babies have to learn how to “unzip” the mammal to get past the fur to the flesh underneath. ¬†Teenage chicks may practice pouncing on dead prey left in the nest. Once they fledge, these are all skills they will need if they are to survive in the wild.

I never really thought much about how birds survive after they leave the nest. I always assumed that once they flew off that they were on their own instinctively knowing how to get food and eat it. Not so! In the Raptor Family, the adolescent fledglings may be fed by their parents for 4-6 weeks or more after fledging. The parents encourage them to try to catch food, but if they fail or cannot complete the kill, then Mom or Dad will step in and complete the process or drop food for them. The fledglings are very vocal and cry loudly begging for food if they are unsuccessful. The parents are always encouraging them to try again, allowing them to beg for some time before intervening hoping that hunger will be the driving force behind their ultimate hunting success. Practice makes perfect.

Harris’s Hawks are popular with falconers.

Just as our children may need help after they “leave the nest”, juvenile birds also need help from their parents. My foray into the birding world has educated me greatly on bird behavior and I must admit that I have been totally awed by the majesty and wonder of it all.

Happy bird searching!!!