Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Hawks Frequenting Area Feeders
February 13, 2021
By Steve Grinley
Hawks visit our backyard feeders in Essex almost everyday-often more than once a day. With all the snow cover that we have had, and with all the birds that are congregating at the bird feeders, many customers are sharing stories about the hawks that are also visiting their yards.
As I stepped out the back door of the store this afternoon, I nearly stepped on a small pile of feathers. The remnants were likely those of a starling, so I was not too distraught. It reminded me of a column that I originally wrote more than ten years ago about hawk encounters. We had them more frequently at the store back then when we had more outside feeders at our previous location. I’ll share it again here:
As I drove into the store parking lot this morning, I noticed a pile of feathers under the bushes in the corner. I got out of the car and examined the large quantity of gray and white feathers and concluded that it was (once) a pigeon. I looked across the street and the telephone wires were absent of the usual alignment of pigeons. My hawk must have had an early breakfast that day. It plucked the pigeon clean, as there were even down feathers in the mix.
I have both sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks that frequent my feeders at the store. No, they are not feeding at the feeders but, rather, dining on the birds that are at the feeders. These long-tailed hawks are members of the accipiter family and up to ninety percent of their diet is small birds. These accipiters have been coming around here as long as I’ve had feeders up. Usually they will perch in the nearby shrubs or trees and wait. Then, when the opportunity arises, they will swoop down, usually low to the ground, and catch their prey off guard.
I’ve had a Cooper’s hawk pass within a couple of feet of me in the parking lot as I was talking to a customer. It was so focused on its prey that it paid no attention to us humans. On other occasions, these agile hawks would dart in and out of the thick shrubs, trying to pluck a sparrow from its protective cover. They seem to have less success at that.
I also recall the Cooper’s hawk that followed one of my employees into the seed storage trailer. I remember it well because it was the day of our first Sibley book signing. She had gone into the trailer to get a bag of seed, when the hawk, seeing her bushy hair I guess, thought that he had something cornered. Well, needless to say, she was startled when she turned around and saw this hawk coming in after her. The hawk must have been equally startled to find the clump of hair was attached to more that it bargained for!
Other hawks have made appearances over the years. I had a kestrel feeding on a sparrow on the doorstep of the store when I pulled in one morning. A young red-tailed hawk has also perched near the store a couple of times. The red-tail would be looking for small mammals, including squirrels, and I’ve had customers tell me that their red-tailed hawks have been effective in thinning their squirrel population. A few customers have had them chase birds, but red-tails are not nearly as agile as Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawks. I’ve never seen one catch anything nearby my store.
The Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks are, by far, the more common hawks chasing birds at feeders. Friend and fellow birder, Phil Brown, recently e-mailed me to tell me about a couple of encounters that he had with these hawks. He does have them raiding his feeder birds in his yard in Essex on occasion, but these recent events occurred while he was elsewhere:
“I’ve had two great accipiter encounters recently. I noticed a female Cooper’s was perched on a very tall telephone pole in Danvers the other day while on my way to Home Depot. I pulled over and put my bins on her as she “dropped” from the pole in my direction. I had to put the bins down within a second or two as she went by the drivers window at eye level! I watched her in the mirror as she banked to the left into a yard a few feet off the ground and then rose just enough to clear the fence that most likely had a feeder on the other side. I was quite impressed with her use of the terrain as a blind. I’ve seen other accipiters use fences and trees as cover but not for this distance or length of time. Very cool indeed!
“After stopping at the seawall at Joppa Park this past Monday to check out the gull roost, I was pulling out of Bromfield Street and onto Water Street towards Plum [Island] when I noticed a shadow out of my left eye. I glanced left to see a Sharp-shinned Hawk go by at eye level just a few feet from the window. It banked to the right and passed in front of the truck at hood level, and into a front yard, up the short walk and landed, running into the evergreens in front of the house. I was passing by the shrubs as it went in and didn’t see it or anything else come out the other side. I’m guessing there are House Sparrows that roost in these shrubs and would like to think the hawk used the truck for cover but of course can’t confirm that. Skittish birds at feeders have good reason to be just that!