The bird lover’s dilemma: Putting out seed to draw birds to your yard can attract accipeters

I had just finished filling the front-yard bird feeders and was stepping into the side door when a large bird glided in and settled on the fence between the houses, almost in front of me. I stood frozen with the storm door half open and took a close look at a Cooper’s hawk.

I had a side view with its back toward me. Its head swiveled as it checked out the feeders I’d just filled. There was no action at any of the feeders. I was secretly glad that the hawk wasn’t going to nab a victim from my very yard.

The hawk dropped backward off the fence, turned toward me in mid-air and sailed toward the back yard. It perched on the cable line above the area where I put out ground feed, especially loved by juncos and squirrels (rabbits take the night shift).

I edged my way along the side of the house, back toward the alley, watching the hawk all the while. As I reached the end of the deck, where the fence ends, the hawk left the wire, headed toward me again, but then ducked around the other side of the fence, out of sight.

I stepped off the deck, turned toward the garage to put away the birdseed and looked up briefly. There was the hawk sitting in the peach tree directly above the ground feeding area. (Yes, I do have a peach tree growing in my back yard. It was a volunteer grown from a peach pit in the compost bin.) The hawk had looped back without my seeing it. I was surprised that a bird so large could be so invisible.

Imagine being a potential target meal, thinking the threat was gone, and, wham, there it is, back again.

The Cooper’s hawk is in a family of birds called accipiters. The name apparently comes from an old Latin word that describes the way these hawks grab their prey. I don’t know any old Latin (or any old Latins, for that matter), but I’ve seen a Cooper’s hawk grab a victim and it’s not pretty. The hawk usually takes its catch to a flat spot, and lays it on its back while maintaining its grip with both feet. The hawk then closes its talons and kills its victim by constriction.

Cooper’s hawks tend to take larger prey such as mourning doves, pigeons, robins and jays. Some will even take small mammals, such as chipmunks or squirrels. Its smaller cousin, the sharp-shinned hawk, generally favors smaller birds like chickadees, goldfinches, sparrows and downy woodpeckers.

Somehow, it seems wrong to me for a bird to kill and eat another bird. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps it’s because I think of birds as graceful songsters enjoying the freedom of flight—and yet there is this gruesome reality.

The Cooper’s hawk is 14 to 20 inches from beak to tail tip, which is about the size of a crow. Its head and back are gun-metal blue-gray. The juvenile has heavy dark brown vertical streaks on the chest and tummy. The adult has thin rusty horizontal bars down the front.

Females are generally larger than the males. The tail is rounded at the end with a broad white edge called a terminal band. These features tend to vary with age of the bird and the condition of its feathers.

The sharp-shinned hawk is 10 to 14 inches long, the size of a blue jay or flicker with the same coloration as a Cooper’s but with more of a square tail and a narrower terminal band.

Whenever I see one of these hawks, my adrenaline starts pumping and I stare in awe, finally trying to remember to look at it intently, observe those diagnostic marks (What were they again?), even mumbling notable features to myself, and then, after it’s flown, adjourn to my book shelf for a guide that shows the differences.

Even then, I usually come away with only a “pretty sure” identification.

The Cooper’s hawk I saw had its back or side toward me every time it perched, but the flexibility of its neck allowed it to watch me while surveying the yard for potential victims. This ability to crane its neck and look around is another feature of the Cooper’s hawk. The sharpie has to dip a shoulder in order to look back at something.

This hawk knew that there were feeding areas in the front yard and back by the alley, and those are the spots it checked out. It had probably been here before. Our place was on its morning route.

And so it’s the bird lover’s dilemma: putting out seed to draw birds also brings in a potential meal for an accipiter.

There was no bird action at the feeders for nearly an hour, so at least on this particular morning, I was spared the guilty feeling I get when my bird-feeding zones become bird-killing zones.

Clay Christensen’s book, The Birdman of Lauderdale, is available from local bookstores and bird stores as well as online from BirdmanBook.com.

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