Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sudden Death

Photo of sharp-shinned hawk by Steve Beradi, Wikimedia Commons
If you attract birds to a feeder, you also attract predators for those birds. I usually refill my feeders when I get back to the house after walking with a friend at 7:00 AM. By 7:30 AM, the feeders are generally covered with birds.

Late last week, I noticed there wasn't a single bird on the feeders, and I could hear a blue jay screaming out a warning call. These are sure indications that there is a predator around. I had been seeing the odd sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper's hawk buzzing through the yard at various times, but hadn't seen them catch anything, until this day.

The blue jay's call was too little, too late. A sharp-shinned hawk alighted on the top of our garage next to the feeders, just long enough to adjust the house sparrow in his talons before taking off to enjoy his meal. I have plenty of house sparrows pigging out at the feeders, so I didn't begrudge the hawk his meal. In fact, he can come back for seconds any time.

Both species are here in the winter and prey upon smaller birds, although I have seen a Cooper's hawk wrestling a pigeon nearly as big as it was. It is easy to confuse the sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks. They look very similar. The sharp-shinned is smaller; however, there can be overlap in the size of a male Cooper's hawk and a female sharp-shinned hawk (in raptors, the female is larger), so size is not a definitive way to tell the difference. However, a sharp-shinned hawk seems slighter and more delicate overall.

In comparison, the sharp-shinned has a smaller head in proportion to its body than does a Cooper's hawk. The sharp-shinned as a more squared tail and a Cooper's a more rounded tail.

Either way, it is always exciting to see one of these graceful, fierce predators hunting. If I could just teach them to stick to the house sparrows!

Good birding!