When we put bird seed out to attract songbirds, we may end up attracting more than we asked for. In affect, our bird feeders may become feeders in duplicate. Not in a way we intended or necessarily love, but nature is not always wrapped in rainbows and snowflakes. Last week while glancing out the kitchen window on a beautiful frosty morning, I caught the image of a hawk with wings outstretched flying towards the house. The glare of the sun shining through its feathers made it hard for my eyes to recognize what I was seeing and it happened so quickly, my brain was slow on making the connection. But in that momentary glimpse I’m sure I saw something in the talons of the raptor. A bird. I’m sure it had a bird in its grasp, probably a chickadee.
I couldn’t help feeling mixed emotions of amazement and sadness. I love chickadees and all the birds that come to our feeders, but I also find hawks to be beautiful and worthy of appreciation. They too need food, and like us, they are carnivores. This, we believe was a Sharp-shinned Hawk, one that has been seen on other, unsuccessful swoops
The Sharp-shinned hawk is one that you might see around your birdfeeders
through the feeding area. Sharp-shinned’s belong to the group of raptors known as Accipiters. Characteristics include long tails and shorter, more rounded wings. Both features allow them to maneuver through the branches of trees while in flight. They can chase smaller, more agile songbirds, – one of their preferred prey species with speed and stealth.
The Sharp-shinned is the smallest of the three species of North American Accipiters. The other two are the Coopers hawk and the Goshawk. While both of these species will also take songbirds around feeders, their larger size requires larger prey species, including poultry, grouse and small to medium sized mammals. The Coopers hawk has been known to eat fish. Because these birds can survive by eating other birds, they are not as restricted by winter weather and do not have to migrate as far south as the other raptors. It will not surprise us if this small hawk continues to hunt around our feeders during the coming months.
A few years ago, we visited my mom in Iowa City when the weather was mild and more reminiscent of spring than autumn, but the leafless trees allowed me to witness another avian drama in the neighbor’s backyard. It was early in the morning and I heard some cantankerous crows calling, so I looked out a nearby window and saw five of the birds sitting in a rough semicircle in the branches of a big cottonwood. There was a Red-tailed Hawk also sitting in the
The Red-tailed hawk is larger than the Sharp-shinned and does not typically stay in the northern regions in winter, preferring to hunt on bare ground.
tree and two of the crows were directly above it. The hawk didn’t look especially worried, but the crows were agitated and when one hopped down a branch so that it was just inches away from the hawk, the harassment was too much and the hawk took off. But it didn’t fly straight out and away. It flew down a few feet where two more crows were sitting. At that point there was a flapping of wings and because I didn’t have my binoculars I couldn’t see exactly what was happening, but as the Red-tailed flew away, I again had the definite impression that it had something in its talons. It wasn’t one of the crows, but I think it probably was a small squirrel. [Note to self: always bring binoculars with you].
Again I was witness to the reality of life in the wild. Nature doesn’t have feelings as we do; it doesn’t judge whether something is good or bad. It just is. And it has functioned quite well -, in balance, for time immemorial. We are part of nature too, even though our larger brains have allowed us to believe we are somehow apart from it. We can and have influenced it in astounding ways, but we’re really not in control. One might even say we are out of control. If we wish to be around as long as the birds have been, we must quickly change our perception and relationship to nature. Finding that balance, that equilibrium is the greatest challenge we will ever face.
By Kate Crowley