Hawks, falcons use different techniques to prey on birds

Posted April 01, 2009, at 5:24 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:38 a.m.

Last week, a large female sharp-shinned hawk showed up in my Orono yard and got into my brush pile, trying to catch a junco. It did not succeed after noisily whacking around the dead branches. The junco lay low in the bottom of the pile.

Hooray for my junco! I was proud of my brush pile. But the hawk has to eat, too. That sharp-shinned hawk was agile and quick as it went through the branches.

The next day in Bangor I got a brief look at a Cooper’s hawk. It was looking for pigeons.

Cooper’s hawks are larger than sharp-shinned hawks, but otherwise they look the same. They are closely related. Sharp-shinned hawks tend to kill smaller birds such as sparrows or chickadees, while Cooper’s hawks tend to kill larger prey, such as robins, doves or blue jays. This Cooper’s hawk was looking for pigeons.

These hawks have one other close relative in Maine — the goshawk, which can kill, pluck and eat a grouse. These three forest species are called accipiters.

Experienced birders learn how to identify hawks by their family first, then the species, rather than fumbling through the many pictures of different hawks.

My “sharpie,” though large, didn’t have the black cap of the Cooper’s hawk, nor did it have the rounded tail of a Cooper’s hawk. The “sharpie’s” gray head and squared-off tail gave her identity away as a sharp-shinned hawk.

Accipiters are forest hawks; their short wings and long tails enable them to chase other birds. A hawk’s chase can zigzag among the branches and trunks of the forest, until the hawk gives up or it grabs the prey with its talons.

Another group of hawks is called buteos; they tend to circle in the sky and catch their prey on the ground. A typical one is the well-known red-tailed hawk. The most common hawk in Maine is the broad-winged hawk, a small woodland buteo, which is now arriving in Maine. The broad-winged hawk is the only buteo that sits on telephone wires.

And another group is the falcons, the fastest ones. They, too, are just arriving. Peregrine falcons can chase the fastest of the ducks and knock them out of the sky. Merlins are falcons, too, and one already is nesting along the Kenduskeag Stream in Bangor. The merlin’s prime prey item is any pigeon.

For information on Fields Pond Audubon Center, call 989-2591.

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