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Season 5, Episode 1.

The Chihuahuan Desert and the Llano Estacado have a wealth of wintering hawks. Several species nest in the region, too. Each family of hawks has its own hunting behavior. Can you use their behavioral cues to identify each hawk species on the wing?

From Marfa Public Radio, in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas, this is Nature Notes.

The wintering Accipiters, Sharp-shinned and the few Cooper's Hawks that nest in the region, live mainly on other birds. They fly across country looking for concentrations of birds, then, find a secluded perch where they can watch with­out being seen. The short, round wings and long narrow tails of Accipiters enable them to fly through trees and bushes in pursuit of their prey. It’s characteristic of these hawks to pluck the feathers from a bird before eating it.

The Buteos (beauty-os) are large, broad-winged hawks, usually seen soaring high in the sky. When hungry, the year around resident Red-tailed Hawk finds a high perch from which it can watch the ground over a wide area. When a rodent or snake is sighted in the grass, the hawk leaves its perch and drops on the animal. After making a kill, a Red-tail frequently carries its prey back to a perch to eat.

In the winter, Ferruginous Hawks are often seen standing on the ground, patiently waiting for a prairie dog or ground squirrel to come out of a hole.  In the summer, Swainson's Hawks hunt from a perch like Red-tails, or chase grasshoppers on the ground, hopping along, sometimes with flapping wings, making swift darts at its erratically jumping victims.

The year around resident Harris' Hawk’s hunting behavior is unique as they are the only raptor in the world to hunt in teams. Family members work together to chase down rabbits.

While hunting, the wintering Golden Eagle beats over the countryside at a relatively low altitude and flies down in a fast swoop to seize its quarry.  It takes a large variety of small to medium sized animals.

The wintering Harriers are always seen flying low, barely high enough to clear the vegetation.  When one sights a mouse, it stops suddenly, hovers briefly and drops abruptly.  They devour their prey on the spot.


Bald eagles are rarely seen in the Trans-Pecos but are found year around along the Canadian River at the north edge of the Llano Estacado. Both Bald Eagles and Ospreys are fish eaters, although Bald Eagles sometimes vary their diet at prairie dog towns. They fly over water at a height of 30 to 100 feet, scanning the depths below.  When one sees a fish near the surface, it hovers for an instant and then with half-closed wings drops like a bullet, plunging into the water feet first. Ospreys carry their fish to an elevated perch to eat. Bald Eagles eat on the shore.

The wintering Prairie Falcon, a year-round resident in the mountains, catches its prey by diving upon it or by chasing it, sometimes hovering while searching the ground for prey.

One of the most exciting spectacles in nature is that of a Peregrine Falcon making a kill. From hundreds of feet in the air, the migrating Peregrine spots its  prey, banks, goes into a “stoop” and plummets at speeds up to 200 miles an hour toward the intended victim.  With talons clenched, the Peregrine strikes its prey, and the sky is filled with feathers.

The wintering Merlin prefers to hunt the shores of lakes or rivers. It finds a perch with an unobstructed view, then, seeing a small bird fly past, it launches a swift pursuit.  Sometimes a Merlin dives into a flock of swirling blackbirds and emerges with a bird in each foot.

The American kestrel, which lives year around in the region, with many more coming to spend winters, spends lots of time perching. But the Kestrel hunts on the wing, hovering suspended in the air looking for mice or insects in the grass below.

Be on the lookout for hawks!

Nature Notes is sponsored by the Dixon-Water Foundation and is produced by KRTS, Marfa Public Radio, in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Burr Williams of the Sibley Nature Center.  Join Williams Facebook page and visit sibleynaturecenter.org.