By Bryan Stevens
According to a recent Census Report, Americans are feeding birds in epic numbers — 63 million people in this country make life less of a struggle for birds by filling bird feeders with sunflower seeds, peanuts and other goodies. In fact, watching and feeding birds ranks second only to gardening as one of America’s popular pastimes.
Unfortunately, bringing wild birds into our lives means we are occasional witnesses to the darker side of nature that dictates there’s a survival of the fittest competition taking place in our own backyards and gardens.
Welcoming birds into our yards and lives means inviting all birds, include predatory raptors such as sharp-shinned hawk, merlin, Cooper’s hawk and American kestrel. It’s a problem Elizabeth Laing has had to cope with in recent weeks. We’ve commiserated over Facebook about her conflicted feelings about the predatory nature of the hawk that’s been stalking birds at her feeders.
Elizabeth sent me a message via Facebook on Nov. 21 about a situation unfolding at her home in Abingdon, Virginia.
“Please help me to know what to do,” she wrote as the start of her message. “Right now I an absolutely devastated and in tears. I have about eight feeders up year round. I feed a lot of small birds in my backyard and even crows in my front yard. I have at least 15 American goldfinches right now at several sunflower chip feeders.”
Elizabeth noted that for the past few days she had seen a small hawk in her backyard for the first time ever.
“I was worried and tried to scare it off,” she wrote. “I realize they have to eat, too, and are beautiful birds, but I don’t want them killing birds on my feeders.”
Unfortunately, that’s what happened right as she watched through a window as a goldfinch feeding at her feeder.
“The hawk swooped in and grabbed him off the feeder,” she reported.In the wake of the hawk’s action, Elizabeth took some sensible steps, including immediately taking down her feeders.
Some of her birds, such as the tufted titmice, came back quickly and perched on the empty feeder poles. “I felt so bad,” she said. “I want to feed them, but I can’t stand the thought of them being snatched off my feeders.”
She concluded her message by asking my advice. I responded and told her that when hawks do make a habit of raiding feeders, it can be necessary to curtail feeding for a couple of weeks or longer. Most authorities on birding insist that the hawks will lose interest and move to more productive feeding grounds. Unfortunately, the raptor visiting Elizabeth’s yard proved persistent.
“I wanted to update you on my hawk problem,” Elizabeth wrote back in another message on Nov. 26. “I took all my feeders down, but not long enough. After five days, I put them back.
She had also invested in brand new, expensive caged feeders. She purchased the caged feeders thinking the goldfinches would be safe inside.
For flocking birds, like American goldfinches, the caged feeders offered security only to birds inside the caging. Those birds waiting outside of the caging for their own turns at the feeder remained vulnerable.
“I found feathers on the side of one cage this morning,” she wrote. “Then, as I was watching a bunch eat, that hawk swooped in and took another one off the side.”
The entire situation has made her discouraged and sad. “I hope this doesn’t mean I will have to stop feeding birds entirely. I actually have bags of seeds and peanuts (for the titmice) coming in the mail later this week,” she wrote.
In the wake of the latest attacks, she has taken down the feeders again. “I will leave them down for two weeks this time,” she wrote. “I know the hawk has to eat, too, and it’s a beautiful bird, but I can’t do this to my little goldfinches.”
I agreed that it would be senseless, as well as rather cruel, to provide food for songbirds while knowing a hawk is lurking in the vicinity.
Elizabeth also asked if I have had birds killed at my feeders. Although it has been a thankfully rare occurrence, hawks have snatched birds visiting my feeders. I’ve not often witnessed the actual predation, often finding only a pile of feathers on the ground as evidence of the hawk’s success.
A few years ago, however, I witnessed a rather dramatic attack on New Year’s Day. As I watched a female Northern cardinal feeding on sunflower seeds spilled onto the ground by the birds visiting a hanging feeder, a sharp-shinned hawk suddenly slammed into the cardinal. In an instant, I saw my first and second bird species of the New Year. The cardinal, however, didn’t get to live and enjoy the unfolding year.
The website allaboutbirds.org described the sharp-shinned hawk as “a tiny hawk that appears in a blur of motion — and often disappears in a flurry of feathers.” It’s an apt description of this pint-sized predatory bird.
The website also notes that studies indicate that feeders don’t make it more likely that our favorite songbirds will be preyed upon by a sharp-shinned hawk or other raptor. Although feeders might temporarily attract a raptor, these birds will catch the majority of their prey elsewhere.
The sharp-shinned hawk belongs to a genus of raptors known as accipiters, which are slender raptors with rounded wings and long tails. They are highly maneuverable in flight. A characteristic of accipiters is long legs and sharp talons. In fact, the genus is named from the Latin word for hawk, “accipere,” which can be translated as, “to grasp.”
Other members of the accipiters in North America include the Cooper’s hawk and Northern goshawk. Other accipiters around the world include such raptors as chestnut goshawk, red-chested goshawk, crested goshawk, little sparrowhawk, spot-tailed sparrowhawk, black sparrowhawk and red-thighed sparrowhawk.
Elizabeth sent me one other message, informing me that she had also advised her neighbor to take down his feeder, which he did. Shortly after he did so, Elizabeth saw the hawk attack a squirrel, which, thanks to Elizabeth rapping on a windowpane, apparently survived the attack.
In addition, if the hawk in her yard is attacking squirrels, her visitor is probably a Cooper’s hawk, a bird almost identical to a sharp-shinned hawk except for its larger size. I’m hopeful that an extended hiatus will convince the hawk to leave Elizabeth and her goldfinches in peace.
It’s still good to remember that hawks view smaller birds flocking to a feeder in the same way those small songbirds view the abundance of seeds. For both hawks and songbirds, our offerings represent easy meals. It’s not easy, but the best choice is to co-exist — if not at peace, then at terms with nature’s reality.
The Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society is selling its 2019 calendar for $15 each.
All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes in Northeast Tennessee. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites and some not-so-common visitors.
The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeak. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact firstname.lastname@example.org by email or send a message via Facebook at www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Calendars can be mailed to any destination in the United States for an additional charge of $2 for shipping and postage.