Mewsings from Millie
You are sitting in your back yard enjoying the song birds flitting about the bird feeders when suddenly all goes quiet and they scatter for cover. Looking around you see a large bird perched in a nearby tree, on a fence or on a telephone pole. Who is this lunch time intruder? Most likely it is a Cooper's or Sharp-shinned Hawk. These birds have adapted very well to habitats that have been altered by humans and are now common at bird feeders nationwide.
Project Feeder Watch reports that in 1989 Cooper's Hawks were seen at just 6.4% of participants feeders. By 2014, the number had grown to 21.9%.
One reason for this increase could be that hawks are doing better overall thanks to the ban on DDT in 1972. (DDT was a chemical that affected the egg shells of raptors and other birds. The shells were disastrously thin resulting in nesting failure.)
Another reason for this increase of hawk visits to feeders could be the regrowth of mature trees in the suburbs. This has created more nest sites close to places where people live.
However, the biggest reason for an increase in urban sightings could be the ever-growing popularity of the hobby of bird feeding.
Both Cooper's and Sharp-shinned hawks are well-suited for hunting at feeders. They both have long tails and short, rounded wings that let them maneuver quickly through busy backyards, swooping in with razor-sharp talons extended..
Cooper's Hawks are particularly adaptable and opportunistic. Participants in the annual Christmas Bird Count are three times more likely to spot Cooper's Hawks than they were in 1960.
Because of the abundance of backyard prey, some hawks may decide not to migrate. Ornithologist Charles Duncan analyzed 18 years of Sharp-shinned data taken during the Christmas Bird Count in New England. He discovered that between 1975 and 1992 the number of hawks that overwintered in the region grew by more than 500%!
This may make you wonder: is hawk predation causing the populations of feeder birds to suffer? No worries. At this time there is no evidence that hawks have caused a decrease in any prey species taken at feeders.
Many people are thrilled to witness these natural predator/prey interactions in their own backyards. Some folks, however, find it upsetting. If you belong to the latter group, there are a few things you can do:
- create cover: plant native trees and shrubs, especially evergreens, near feeders or create brush piles no more than 20 feet away. Birds will be able to dive into these shelters and escape, not only from hawks but cats, too.
- prevent window collisions: a stunned bird is easier prey for a raptor. Use reflective window decals or screens and consider moving feeders within 3 feet of the windows to reduce the chance of an accelerated collision.
- cover up: hawks are attracted to prey activity. Use feeders with roofs or non-see-through covers.
- avoid ground feeding: use hanging platform feeders for ground-feeding birds. Birds on the ground are more susceptible to hawk attacks.
- cage or fence: enclose feeders in wire cages designed to keep out larger birds. Some people use 4-foot rabbit fencing to prevent hawks from swooping down on ground feeders.
- close down shop: if hawks are still preying on birds at your feeders despite all of your efforts to deter them, take the feeders down temporarily. The hawks will go elsewhere. If they return after you put your feeders back out, take them down again for a longer period of time.
- accept that raptors are part of nature, too, and let nature take its course.
Finally, I want to remind you that hawks are protected by state and federal laws so never, ever harass or harm them. Enjoy their beauty, their grace and their skills and never cease to be in awe of the wonders of nature.
Until next time,
The Muse of Mews
(a flick of a whisker to National Wildlife, Oct. - Nov. 2016)