This week’s column is a command performance. I have been commanded to write about hawks at the bird feeder. This came about because I was coaxed into offering myself up as an auction item to support the Orono Bog Boardwalk. Jim and Mary Bird outbid all others to earn the right to select a column topic, and they have chosen a challenging subject.
Yes, hawks raid the feeder. No, there’s not much you can do about it.
Hmmm, only 650 more words to write on a subject that doesn’t lend itself to long-windedness.
It’s a simple matter. Some birds eat other birds, and if you collect small birds in one place, larger birds are going to visit the buffet.
Accipiters are a woodland family of hawks notorious for staking out bird feeders, especially sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. The much larger northern goshawks also prowl feeders occasionally. Accipiters are stealthy raptors, built for maneuverability in the forest, unlike speedy falcons that are built for chasing down prey in the open. Falcons include American kestrels, merlins, and peregrines.
Buteos are slow hawks, likely to perch and wait for an unwary meal or dive from a height on an unsuspecting rodent. Broad-winged, red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks are in this family.
In most cases, the culprit snatching a meal from your feeder is an accipiter. With shorter, rounded wings and a longer tail, these hawks can better swerve around obstacles while chasing down prey. Typically, they will cruise along the tree line or along a natural corridor in the woods, such as a logging road or a railroad track. In this way, they sneak up on their meals, suddenly flashing into sight. They rarely dive from a height.
Accipiters are not averse to sitting within view of a feeder and waiting for lunch to show up. Songbirds make up roughly 90 percent of a sharp-shinned hawk’s diet, though they relish an occasional rodent or grasshopper. Cooper’s hawks are larger than sharpies and show a preference for larger meals. Hence, a raptor that snatches a mourning dove or blue jay near the feeder is more likely to be a Cooper’s, and they can prey on chipmunks and squirrels. The two hawks are similar in appearance and hunting style.
The northern goshawk is a brute. It is less commonly seen at a feeder because it prefers bigger game, such as snowshoe hare or ruffed grouse. In fact, the name comes from the Old English for goose hawk. Goshawks are resident throughout the northern hemisphere worldwide. They are secretive and difficult to find. They are less likely to migrate than sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks.
But times are a-changing. For several decades, biologists have noticed a decline in sharp-shinned hawks at migration points such as Cape May, N.J. The decline may not be worrisome. Christmas bird counts are showing that more sharpies simply are lingering in the north, perhaps because of bird feeders, perhaps because of a warming climate. Cooper’s hawk populations increased in Maine in the 1980s and ’90s as they became more comfortable with a diet of city pigeons and suburban birds. Cooper’s hawks are seen in winter much more often than they once were. I recall one that used to roost under the eaves of the Bangor Auditorium.
At best, there are roughly three strategies for dealing with hawks at the feeder. The first and best is acceptance. Hawks are part of nature, often taking birds that are weakened by age or illness, and the removal of sick birds can improve the overall health of the songbird population. Furthermore, the hawk success rate is painfully low.
The second strategy is removal. Taking down the feeders for a little while will cause the hawk to look for greener pastures. Meanwhile, the feeder birds will be able to find enough natural food while waiting out the hawk. Songbirds appreciate feeders but are not reliant on them.
The third strategy is more complicated. By placing feeders near bushes and thick foliage, songbirds have a better chance of spotting trouble and hiding. Just make sure that the foliage isn’t directly under the feeder, lest you be providing cover for lurking cats. Some feeders are surrounded by cages. While these are intended to keep the squirrels out, they can thwart a hawk ambush, too. You can imagine how surprised both the chickadee and the hawk would be when the latter’s stealth attack clangs against the cage.
Now there’s a story the chickadee can tell his grandchildren.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Reach Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.