Tuesday, January 25, 2022—Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a 98-acre zoo, aquarium, botanical garden, natural history museum, publisher, and art gallery founded in 1952. Located just west of Tucson, Arizona, it features two miles of walking paths traversing 21 acres of desert landscape. Our main goal in visiting the museum was to see the Raptor Free Flight program. In this program, only birds native to the Sonoran Desert are flown. The birds fly so close you can feel the brush of feathers as they whiz by, completely untethered, and without any jesses (leg straps)! The demonstration was awesome, as the raptors fly in the open desert.

We joined Dan, Pat, Arnie, and Toney in the packed queue for the demonstration. After a brief introduction, the first raptors to fly were Chihuahuan Ravens. These birds are known for being exceptionally intelligent birds; they can recognize faces, and, being incredibly playful, have been documented stealing windshield wipers off parked cars to goof around with them. (NOTE: You make click or double click on each image to enlarge it.)

Next to fly were Crested Caracara. We have seen them previously in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. When seen from a distance it is often mistaken as a bald eagle. The Crested Caracara looks like a hawk with its sharp beak and talons, behaves like a vulture, and is technically a large tropical black-and-white falcon.

Fifteen years ago there were only about 80 known nesting pairs of Gray Hawks in Southern Arizona. Through riparian conservation efforts, and practicing wise use of the land those numbers have increased to nearly 200 nesting pairs. The Gray Hawk is a predominantly Mexican and South American species, though a small population migrates to spend the spring and summer months in southern Arizona. It is found in lowland riparian areas and mesquite bosques, and specializes in reptilian prey, especially lizards.

One of my favorites, the Harris’s Hawk is the only raptor species in the world that hunt as a family using strategy similar to that of wolves; they are one of only two truly cooperative hunters in the raptor world. They will live in pairs in the tropical areas, or places where prey is abundant; in areas like the Sonoran desert where prey has a lot of good cover, they have been documented in groups as large as 9 birds. They will take turns harrying a rabbit or squirrel, chasing it out of cover towards other family members, etc. Although the Harris’s Hawk is found in the southern half of Arizona, southwest New Mexico, southern Texas, and all through Mexico and South America, cooperative hunting is only observed in the Sonoran Desert region of their range.

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