Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Backyard Feeder Drama

This weekend has not only been Presidents Day weekend and Valentine's Day weekend but the weekend of the Great Backyard Bird Count run by, among others, the Audubon Society and Cornell. These counts are useful as a way of getting the average person as well as the avid birdwatcher involved in reporting what they see and how many, which helps the scientists get an idea of what species are increasing and which are on the decline.

Adult sharp-shinned hawk with prey in hole (Margo D. Beller)
This particular day, Sunday, Feb. 15, the wind has been howling and I've had to go out twice to re-set a feeder in danger of being blown off the pole. I came downstairs at 7:30 a.m. and the birds were already all over the 4 feeders I left out despite the risk of wind. It is wicked cold out, wind chills in the minus numbers and even the enclosed porch's thermometer is showing me 10 degrees.

In short, it's cold and the birds gotta eat to survive.

The early risers are there - cardinals, chickadees, titmice - and a few surprises including a pair of American goldfinches and a Carolina wren that nestled inside the house feeder as the wind rocked it like a cradle. When things calmed it flew to the suet feeder and took advantage of the pounding a larger hairy woodpecker had given the near-frozen fat to take a few nibbles before flying off. I like Carolina wrens and if I had been outside I am sure I'd have heard it singing from somewhere nearby.

But I did not go outside. And at 8am, just as a cloud of house sparrows and house finches descended to push off the birds I do like, there was a gust of wind and a sudden large bird in the yard I just knew to be an accipiter and all the birds scattered. The bird flew to a low branch, giving me a perfect view of it. I saw it was an adult (gray feathers, red breast), male (smaller than the female) sharp-shinned hawk with its rounded head and square tail.

Juvenile Cooper's hawk (Margo D. Beller)
Accipiters are the most feared birds in this area. The sharpy and its larger cousin, the Cooper's hawk, are lightning fast and agile enough to fly between trees in a forest, going after birds, squirrels and other smaller animals. I have seen sharpys fly out of a bush. They seem to come from nowhere (unlike the larger red-tailed hawk, a buteo, which either hovers in the air or sits atop a pole or tree before dropping down to grab prey in an open area like a highway).

The sharpy sat for 10 minutes before catching another gust of wind out of my backyard. It took another 20 minutes for any birds to return to the feeders, and I was not surprised they were the intrepid chickadees and their cousins the titmice.

When I told MH about the sharpy he reminded me what it says in one of my reference guides, "Birds at Your Feeder," when it comes to sharp-shins and Cooper's - they like birds at your feeder.

We have hawks fly through at all times of the year, going after birds, squirrels and chipmunks. We've had a small flock of turkey vultures that somehow found a frozen rabbit carcass in a corner of my yard. We've had broadwing hawks, red-tails and even a juvenile northern goshawk, the largest of the accipiters, that somehow found its way to a low branch in my backyard for a day.

I find the accipiters most interesting. When they are young they are brown, streaky and not very good at catching prey. We've seen several near-misses over the years including the time an American tree sparrow flew out of our caged feeder just as a juvenile Cooper's hit it from the other side. It sat atop the feeder stunned, and I took a picture. I've seen juvenile Coopers on a branch on one side of a tree trunk trying to grab at a squirrel on the other side. It would be funny to watch if it wasn't a life and death struggle. The hawk wants to eat, the squirrel wants to live.
Juvenile Cooper's hawk (R.E. Berg-Andersson)

But accipiters have to learn fast if they want to survive and by the time the streaked breast goes red and the brown feathers turn gray they know how to hunt very well - unfortunately for the junco and the chickadee and the mourning doves I've seen picked off in the yard over the years.

The only thing that kept today's sharp-shinned hawk from catching any of the many birds at my feeders was that sharp wind blowing it off course. Today, the little birds got away. Tomorrow?

I've no doubt that sharpy found something in another yard to fill its crop and allow it to live to hunt another day.

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