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March 15, 2019

By: Brittany Ash, Children's Zoo Keeper

Harris’ hawks are birds of prey that are found throughout the southern United States, Chile, Argentina and Brazil in semi-open desert lowlands. As a result, they are accustomed to the high temperatures during the day and low desert temperatures during the night.

These birds of prey are unique because they thrive in social groups. Harris’ hawks have been known to hunt in complex social groups for their food. For example, researches have noted that Harris’ hawk groups will surround the hiding place of prey while one hawk approaches the prey on foot. That’s right! Harris’ hawks have been observed to walk and fly for their food! The hawk on foot will then flush out the prey so group mates can capture the prey. Harris’ hawks are often known to perch close together because of their complex social groupings. They often display a “stacking” behavior. This behavior involves the hawks perching on each other’s backs during the day.

Here at the Saint Louis Zoo, the Children’s Zoo has the privilege to care for two Harris’ hawks, a female named Kohana and a male named Takoda.

Kohana is a Native American name that means “swift.” Takoda is also a Native American name that means “friend to everyone.”

Kohana and Takoda are siblings and are currently ambassador animals for the Zoo. This means they serve a higher purpose for their species by educating Zoo visitors about birds of prey and their importance in our world.

While both birds receive quality care in terms of a proper diet, veterinary care and other necessities for positive welfare, they also receive enrichment from their keepers every day. Enrichment is any positive change or stimuli that a keeper can provide within an animal’s environment. This change or stimulus could be a smell, sound, visual stimulus, food or tactile object. Enrichment is very important for our animals at the Zoo because it provides a change within their environment, just as it would in the wild. Our Harris’ hawks receive enrichment every day by flying for their food. Flight training allows our hawks to illustrate their natural behaviors, which is foraging for their food.

Our Harris’ hawks are fed a balanced diet of adult mice and small rats. Both hawks are trained to fly to what is known as a “hackboard” in the world of falconry training for their enrichment. The bird’s diets are placed on the hackboard by the trainers. Both birds are trained to fly to the hackboard, consume their diet and then fly back to their keepers with positive reinforcement. It is enriching for our birds of prey to fly for their diet in order for them to illustrate natural hunting behaviors. It is also enriching for the birds to fly in different temperatures every day and in different seasons throughout the year.

When consuming their prey, they are also illustrating behaviors such as “footing.” This involves the hawks grabbing their food with their sharp talons! While flying, the birds are also exposed to visitors, who enjoy watching the birds take flight. 

As you can see, enrichment is an important activity for all of our animals. The Zoo has a mission statement for enriching all of our animals, which states, “To provide the animals in our care with an environment and varying activities that promote a range of species-appropriate behavior, facilitate behavioral choices and enhance individual well-being”. 

The animal care team at our Zoo works very hard to provide these positive changes for our animals every day!