Cheyenne—the oldest known Harris’s hawk in the world!
Article By Denise Hassinger, MSc., MPS
On January 1, 2023, Freedom Center for Wildlife, Inc. (FCW) lost a treasured soul. Her name was Cheyenne and she served as an animal ambassador for not only her species, but for all wildlife, for almost 38 years. She was the oldest Harris’s hawk in the world and I want to share her story with you.
Cheyenne hatched in the spring of 1985 at the World Bird Sanctuary in Missouri. She traveled across the United States with several falconers over the years. There is no paper trail to track her exact movements, but she made her way from Missouri across several states until she came to the northeastern region of the United States. At this time, she was still within the care of a falconer. During one cold winter, she was left outside and suffered frost bite on her feet. As a result, Cheyenne lost all but four talons on her feet. Due to her injuries, she was unable to continue in falconry and was given to Hawk Creek Wildlife Center located in New York. In 2008, FCW acquired Cheyenne at the age of 23, by which time she was already into her senior years. FCW celebrated Cheyenne’s 30th birthday in 2015, and a huge birthday card was made for everyone to sign and give her birthday wishes. In March 2021, FCW hosted its first and only virtual event, which was to celebrate Cheyenne’s birthday when she turned 36. Each year we were excited to celebrate another birthday with her and watch her set a new record age for her species.
Ruth Brooks, the President of FCW, for years had suspected that Cheyenne was the oldest captive Harris’s hawk, but never confirmed her suspicion. I did an initial Google search and found on allaboutbirds.org, listed under the “cool facts” for Harris’s hawks, that the oldest captive was a female at 25 years of age. This confirmed Ruth’s suspicion. At the time, Cheyenne was already well past 25. In December 2018, the FCW Board of Directors discussed this topic and decided to investigate if this was true. FCW had Cheyenne’s birth certificate and band number, so Linda Cherkassky (FCW advisor) submitted this information to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. As a result, Cornell accepted FCW’s evidence about Cheyenne being the oldest known captive Harris’s hawk and updated the species account for the Birds of North America (now called Birds of the World) and the “cool facts” on allaboutbirds.org. Cheyenne’s species was also featured as the ‘Bird of the Week’ on the American Bird Conservancy website with a special shout out to Cheyenne for being the oldest known captive Harris’s hawk.
In 2019, FCW conservatively announced that Cheyenne was the oldest known captive Harris’s hawk in North America. However, Ruth, myself, and the rest of the FCW Board of Directors were fairly confident that Cheyenne was the oldest in the world, so Linda Cherkassky continued the investigation. She contacted the Cornell Lab of Ornithology again and personnel at United States Geological Survey (USGS) to research the longevity records of North American birds. The oldest known wild Harris’s hawk documented was 11 years old (Clapp, Klimkiewica, & Kennard, 1982) and Cheyenne was still listed as the oldest captive (Dwyer and Bednarz, 2020). It is common for many species to live longer in captivity because they do not face the same perils they would in the wild. Cheyenne was already more than three times older than the oldest known wild Harris’s hawk so we decided to remove the ‘captive’ part of her title. It was then a matter of determining if she was indeed the oldest in the world. A senior science editor at Cornell suggested contacting falconry organizations since this particular species is popular in the falconry community.
Linda continued her investigation by consulting with a well-established ornithologist, which led her to a raptor ecologist, who is also a master falconer, raptor propagator, and a director at the Raptor Research Foundation. They registered Cheyenne in the Baywing Database, a global registry for captive Harris’s hawks, and requested Cheyenne’s pedigree info. Linda contacted the World Bird Sanctuary, Cheyenne’s birthplace, who were able to track down the info for Cheyenne’s father, Old Man, but not her mother. They also checked the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), which showed the oldest Harris’s hawk in the system lived to be 31 years old. Cheyenne had that beat by six years.
In an effort to be as thorough as possible, Linda networked with wildlife veterinarians and rehabilitators with contacts in the zoo community and NAFA (North American Falconers Association). A wildlife health specialist at Parks Canada who is a member of NAFA, surveyed the NAFA membership through social media and posted on UK and European falconry sites about their oldest Harris’s hawks. Several people responded and the oldest reported through this avenue recently lived to be 30 years old. Linda’s thorough investigation has enabled FCW to confidently announce that Cheyenne was indeed the oldest known Harris’s hawk in the world!
FCW is especially proud of this achievement for a few reasons. Cheyenne was a favorite among the animal ambassadors at FCW. She had a wonderful, quirky personality and loved to test new volunteers by trying to intimidate them when they entered and left her enclosure. We saw consistently that if a volunteer did not pass Cheyenne’s test, they would not stay with us for long. She was also a fan favorite with the general public. Her plumage was gorgeous, and since she was a nonnative species to New Jersey, most people had never seen a Harris’s hawk in person.
More importantly, this fact showcases Ruth Brooks’ profound care for wildlife, especially the FCW animal ambassadors. Cheyenne remaining in excellent health, especially during her most senior years, is a proud accomplishment for Ruth. In wildlife rehabilitation there is often very little reward outside of releasing healthy wildlife back to the wild. There is little to no financial gain, and many wildlife rehabilitators work long hours and odd times in order to care for wildlife. The burnout rate is high, but Ruth has persevered and mastered her skill. As a result, Cheyenne lived a long healthy life and we were able to celebrate so many birthdays together! She was living history and I am so thankful that I had the privilege of being part of the FCW team and to care for her. We spent many years bonding and even shared the same birth year. I will never forget her and I am eternally grateful that I had a chance to see her one last time in her final hours. The record is set at 37 years old. Rest in Peace, Cheyenne.
Special shout out to Linda Cherkassky for her thorough efforts and networking within the ornithology and falconry communities to enable us at FCW to share this news with the world!
FCW acknowledges the possibility that there may be a captive Harris’s hawk somewhere in the world that could be older than Cheyenne outside of the investigated channels. If you know of an older Harris’s hawk please contact us or any of the organizations listed in this article.
Clapp, R. B., M. K. Klimkiewicz, and J. H. Kennard (1982). Longevity records of North American birds: Gaviidae through Alcidae. Journal of Field Ornithology, 53(2):81–208. https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/jfo/v053n02/p0081-p0124.pdf
Dwyer, J. F. and J. C. Bednarz (2020). Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.hrshaw.01