Column: Bird feeder hawks

Published 8:02 pm Thursday, January 3, 2008

By Staff
Our bird feeders are usually bustling from dawn to dusk, but every now and then business slows to nearly nonexistent. That used to perplex me greatly until one evening during one of these slack periods I was out at the grill and noticed a Cooper's hawk cruising through the treetops. Closer attention verified the hawk was regularly in the neighborhood. Eventually the feeder business returned to normal, at which point I no longer saw the hawk. That scenario has repeated countless times, to the point that whenever feeder business slows I can assume with some certainty a hawk has moved in.
Whether in the city or country, if you're a regular bird feeder you've certainly seen the blurred flash of large wings as a hawk snatches a bird and disappears. It's all over before you can comprehend what happened. Just two species of hawks are responsible for 99.9 percent of these bird feeder assaults, the Cooper's hawk and the sharp-shinned. Both are in the accipiter family, built for agility and speed with long tails and short wings that allow them to wind their way through dense forests at inconceivable speeds. A goldfinch only seems fast until you've seen one of these hawks chasing it. Both species are forest dwellers where they feed largely on birds. They are nearly identical in appearance except a Cooper's hawk is about the size of a crow while the smaller sharpie is roughly blue jay sized. The third member of the accipiter family is the goshawk, which would also be a problem feeder stalker if they weren't so rare.
At the moment a sharp-shinned hawk is making a constant nuisance of himself at our feeder. I mentioned in a previous column that our tightly clustered feeders were problematic for him, but now he's figured that deal out. He'll more slowly swoop around the feeders to flush his hapless prey or even land on the feeder pole if need be. His selected victim is toast. Several times I've watched in amazement as he chases a goldfinch, nuthatch or whatever amongst the tight branches of a nearby sycamore tree. He unfalteringly matches every desperate twist and turn of the smaller bird as it dodges and weaves over, under and around the branches with the ultimate motivation. I can't believe how fast they go, but it's never fast enough for the victim. Within just a second or two the sharpie has him tightly in his grasp, crosses the creek and disappears into the woods for the final coupe-de-grace. Unlike falcons, which bite their prey to kill it, sharpies and Cooper's simply squeeze the life out of their dinner. Despite their agility, a recent study showed a quarter of these hawks had broken wishbones, presumably from crashes.
Both species are fearless, taking on prey their own size or even larger. Back in the days when everyone had chickens scratching around in the yard the Cooper's was commonly called a chicken hawk for they readily killed full sized chickens. The Cooper's preferred prey is mid sized birds, robins, flickers and such, but they don't hesitate to take on quail, pheasants and the occasional rabbit or squirrel. The smaller sharp-shinned is fond of robins and doves, which equal him in size, as well as the smaller birds.
From my highly unscientific observations it seems that the Cooper's is more inclined to sit unobtrusively in some distant tree, pick out his prey, then make a deadly, run at it. I haven't seen the sharpie acting with such calculation. He just seems to dive bomb in out of nowhere. I suspect his tactic is to just cruise along on patrol awaiting a target to present itself.
There's not much you can do when one of these guys keys in on your feeder, which may last for a few days or up to several months. It's illegal to shoot, trap or harass them. It helps some to have multiple feeders tightly clustered and placing the feeder near dense shrubbery gives the birds a chance for escape, albeit slim. About all you can really do is disperse the buffet by stopping feeding or just sit back and watch the natural predator vs. prey drama. Carpe diem.