South Plains Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, Inc.

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The Hawk Who Comes to Dinner

It’s a frosty December morning. You throw on a wrap and head outdoors to fill your bird feeders. The birds are close-by, waiting in the  trees. Sunflower seed for the jays. Thistle for the Pine siskins. Safflower seed for the cardinals. The moment you go back inside, birds of every color, shape and size storm the feeders. You feel good, knowing you did something to help wildlife get through the winter cold spell. As the morning passes, you look outside again, and wonder why there is almost no activity at your feeding stations; scarcely a bird anywhere. You imagine a cat may be lurking nearby. More time passes and still so few birds. The Blue jays were giving their alarm calls throughout the morning, but that's not uncommon. You glance out the  window. Suddenly, horrified, you see a large bird with long legs swoop down on a lone House Finch on your platform feeder. In the blink of an eye, the finch is gone. The intruder was too large to be a jay or a grackle, and this bird was brown. Keen eyesight, sharp talons, lightening fast strikes: this adds up to only thing: a hawk. These predators are not uncommon, and are frequently seen near backyard bird feeders. Suddenly, you feel defenseless. Here you are, setting the table, so to speak, inviting your feathered friends, and they become the dinner. You feel responsible, and are now faced with a real dilemma: to feed, or not to feed. 

Hopefully, the following information will make the decision easier for you. First, whether you choose to feed the songbirds or not, the hawks will continue to hunt and eat, and those that normally dine on birds will continue to dine on birds. And, if the hawks are not eating at your feeding station, they will be eating somewhere else nearby. Two species of “bird-eating” hawks that normally reside in Lubbock County are the Cooper’s hawk and the Sharp-shinned hawk. Both have similar markings and both have a propensity for songbirds.

While there will be one less songbird at the feeding area, these brief but dramatic encounters are a natural occurring part of the entire scheme of things, and will be repeated over and over during the winter, as more and more songbirds depend on backyard feeders for survival. The Sharp-shinned hawk, or “sharpie” is the smaller of the two hawks. These birds of prey (raptors) are well adapted for speed and maneuverability. They fly rapidly on short wing-beats, often interrupted by a long glide. A Sharp-shinned hawk is more likely to kill small birds, while the Cooper’s hawk may take a dove or jay-sized bird. However, both are opportunistic, and will take whatever prey they can capture. These hawks are accipiters: agile, short-winged long-tailed “forest raptors,” and are likely to venture from the woodland into developed areas looking for prey. They may attack smaller birds distracted by picking sunflower seeds or eating suet.

You may not be pleased that a bird of prey has set up a sentry post overlooking your bird feeders, but there is not much you can do to prevent the raids of these predators. You can place your feeding stations near cover, such as dense shrubbery, where songbirds have a chance to escape whenever one of these hawks drops by for lunch. Remember that your bird feeding efforts benefit a wide variety of species, including predators. This in turn adds to the diversity of wildlife in your yard. Furthermore, these raptors do not kill enough songbirds to impact or reduce their population. This is but one of nature’s ongoing survival dramas unfolding. No one relishes witnessing such life and death struggles, but this is, after all, the way these raptor species live. Birds of prey do not survive on seed and suet, and they do have a very important role in the environment. Watch the predatory birds the same way you watch other birds; learn from them and appreciate them. They are one more member of your backyard wildlife community, and are all part of nature’s equation.

(Photo Credit - Kim Davies - Hawk and a pile of dove feathers)