Bird-eating hawk doing what comes naturally


The evidence is usually obvious. A pile of brown feathers indicates a mourning dove. Red feathers mean cardinal. Yellow suggests a goldfinch. Whenever I find a bunch of feathers in the yard, I’m confident a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk has probably visited. And if I happen to be nearby when the kill occurs, the sky can rain soft, downy feathers immediately after the kill. It’s no wonder backyard birds spook so easily. But given the realities of beak and talon, I understand.

Avian prey

A fleeting shadow crosses the yard and, in unison, all the birds freeze or flee. If I detect the panic, I scan the nearby trees for the hunter. Bird-eating hawks can wreak havoc at backyard feeding stations. Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks eat birds. In fact, as much as 97 percent of their diet is typically avian prey.

Killing and eating songbirds doesn’t make bird-eating hawks bad. It’s simply their role in the ecological play performed on every backyard stage. If it hasn’t happened yet, eventually a bird-eating hawk will visit your feeders. And it won’t be seeds it’s after.

Federally protected hawks

There’s nothing we can do to “get rid” of backyard hawks; they are federally protected. But you can make feeding stations safer by hanging feeders within ten feet of trees or shrubs to provide escape cover for smaller birds. Another solution to the problem is an attitude adjustment. Try to appreciate the drama of predator and prey.

Lucky bird watcher

I tell myself I’m lucky when a hawk visits my backyard. It’s not often I get a close look at such a normally secretive bird. And it’s rarer still to witness the matching of predator and prey. It’s not often we get to watch a raptor in action. So I sit back and savor the drama. After all, the hawk doesn’t always win. In fact, it usually loses. Typically, fewer than half of a hawk’s strikes are successful.

Hawk types

Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks are easy to recognize, but difficult to distinguish. Both are blue-gray above and have reddish brown barring across the chest, and both species have a long narrow tail. Though sharpies are smaller, females of both species are larger than males, and the size of female sharpies and male Cooper’s hawks can overlap. Distinguishing female sharpies from male Cooper’s can frustrate even experienced birders. At the extremes, a male sharp-shin can be as small as a blue jay, while a female Cooper’s can be as big as a crow.

Sharpie attack

A few summers ago I witnessed a sharpie attack. I was working outside when a hummingbird buzzed around the corner of the house. It flew across the road and down the hill. A split second later came the speeding sharpie. It followed precisely the same flight path the hummer had taken and quickly gained ground. When it snatched the hummingbird from the air, I heard a faint futile scream.


Another time while banding birds in the backyard, I had netted a half dozen goldfinches before processing and banding them. As I finished with each bird, I released it. All but the last flew uneventfully into the vegetation that surrounded the yard. The last goldfinch flew straight up — a fatal mistake. As the finch flapped skyward, a sharp-shinned hawk that had been quietly perched unseen in a neighbor’s pine tree launched itself toward the goldfinch.

Life and death

Without missing a wing beat, the hawk grabbed the finch and flew to a favorite perch. There the hawk plucked its prey, and yellow feathers fell gently to the ground. An understandable reaction to predators is often horror, anger and/or sadness. But in nature, life and death are inexorably intertwined. Every death sustains another life. Nature’s cycle of life and death is neither good nor bad. It just is.

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