Old Tucson Studios was build just a few miles from the boundary of Saguaro National Park’s Tucson Mountain District, because of this the park can be seen in the background of many classic western films. The sentinel like saguaros of the Sonoran Desert are certainly iconic scenery for the many movies filmed out here, (dating back to 1939) but desert scrub and cacti aren’t the only classic scenery components. Another essential element to the classic western is the hawk circling over head. Even just the sound of its iconic scream has become an element of film widely used to signal your entry into the wild, so lets honor our local raptors contribution to the silver-screen and western genre by learning about four of our most common raptors found at Saguaro National Park!
Proudly holding the record of world’s fastest flying bird (when driving) are Peregrine Falcons. They are commonly spotted within Saguaro National Park and even Tucson City proper. My having a small urban farm within Tucson has certainly gotten their attention, as Peregrine Falcons are avian specialists. While the large size of my chickens seems to give the smaller Falcons reason to pause, it hasn’t kept them from trying! I have even woke up one morning to discover a large, angry, and panic stricken female Peregrine trapped inside my chicken coop! Thankfully, no chickens were lost but a lot of feathers were certainly shed in the chaos!
Red Tailed Hawks are also extremely common at Saguaro National Park. In fact they are the most common hawk species in America! These adaptable raptors can be found in every state of the continental U.S.! Successfully hunting and breeding from everglades to deserts and near everywhere in between! If you see a hawk flying out in the distance, odds are its a Red Tail. Even if its tail isn’t red, it still might be a Red Tail, since juveniles lack this distinctive plumage until they are at least two years old.
Easily mistaken for a Red Tailed Hawk or juvenile Golden Eagle is the regal Ferruginous Hawk. True, they only migrate south to the Sonoran Desert for a few moths each winter, but they are certainly welcome visitors. Most of the year Ferruginous Hawks hunt the open prairie lands of the Midwest north and east of Arizona, but winters on the Prairie are harsh, and most of their prey spend the winter underground and heavy snowfall hides their burrows from predators. This makes hunting in their traditional manner difficult, as Ferrugingous Hawks are uniquely adapted for hunting burrowing rodents like Prairie Dogs. The hawks circle above and when a small animal scurries into its burrow for safety the hawk descends. The Ferruginous Hawk swoops and forms it’s oddly small feet into fists, which literally punch through the soil to grab the prey cowering in the tunnel! If that wasn’t cool enough, these “snowbirds” are the largest hawk species in North America!
While Ferrugingous Hawks are impressive my favorite raptor species has to be the Harris Hawk! They live and hunt in family units just like wolves! They communicate frequently to coordinate a hunt and work together to drive the prey out of a hiding spot and into the open, where another hawk (waiting on a perch above) can dive down to catch it. Of course once the the hunt becomes dinner the pecking order comes into play. Like many other raptor species the female Harris Hawks are much larger than than the males, so the matriarch of the clan gets first dibs. Although she may choose to feed her offspring or mate first. The social nature of Harris hawks makes them a favorite among falconers and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the Free-flight Program at the Sonoran Desert Museum. The beauty grace and power of these animals coupled with their cooperative nature makes Harris Hawks truly amazing to behold. If you are going to visit Saguaro National Park’s Tucson Mountain District, I recommend stopping by the desert museum to see them for yourself. After all it is on the way!