Separating fact from fiction: Harris hawks in the UK

Native to the Americas, Harris hawks are now breeding here in the UK, but are they really a threat to joggers asks Paul Stancliffe?

Harris-hawk-_-Marcel-ter-Bekke-_-Getty_623_0-3ce376c

Harris hawk © Marcel ter Bekke / Getty 

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Are there wild Harris hawks in Britain?

Yes – the most recent BTO Bird Atlas recorded 59 sightings of wild Harris hawks in the UK between 2007 and 2011, with two breeding attempts in north-west England. In addition, cross-breeding with buzzards occurred in Devon and Yorkshire, and nest-building took place in Derbyshire and Kent.

Where are they coming from?

Harris hawks are very popular for use in falconry because they are relatively easy to control and they are cheap to buy and there are plenty out there – all the ones available in Britain are almost certainly captive-bred. People who are not expert falconers may be losing their birds.

Is this a problem?

We shouldn’t be letting non-native animals of any species escape into the wild, but the number of Harris hawks in the British countryside at the moment is so small, they aren’t a threat. They could become an issue if, at some stage, there were a lot more of them.

Are they attacking people?

There was a story of a runner receiving wounds to his scalp after being dive-bombed by a Harris hawk. When I read the full report, he said the bird had appeared out of nowhere and then disappeared into the dark, so I question whether this really was a Harris hawk because they are day-time hunters.

What could it have been?

A tawny owl might do that. They are nocturnal, and they are known to defend their territories, especially if they have young. There was a report, earlier this year, of a buzzard attacking a cyclist on the same stretch of road on a regular basis, but in truth this sort of behaviour is incredibly rare and, watching the video, I think it was just chasing the man out of its territory.

This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine

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