Garden Predator — Sharp-shinned Hawk

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Sharp-shinned Hawk in the Sutton’s wildlife garden

Some folks are upset, indeed appalled, when a hawk raids their garden or feeders.  Others consider it an amazing opportunity to watch the age-old interactions of predator and prey.  Many or most raids are unsuccessful, but sometimes they score and possibly right in front of our eyes.

Predators are opportunistic

Predators are always on the hunt for easy pickings.  It is no wonder that our wildlife habitats are frequently just the ticket, supermarkets to hungry predators.

If you’ve ever had a hawk targeting your wildlife garden or your winter bird feeder, it is probably a Sharp-shinned Hawk or its larger cousin the Cooper’s Hawk.  Sharp-shinned Hawks are in the group of hawks known as Accipiters, the bird-eating hawks.  They are forest hawks and prey on songbirds.  They have long tails and stubby-rounded wings, a structure best suited for chasing songbirds through the forest.  The rudder-like tail enables them to zigzag through dense vegetation after prey.  They are ambush predators and, if not successful in the first attempt, will not pursue prey at length.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are birds from the northern forest.  During the summer months they breed from Newfoundland south to New England (and down through the Appalachian Mountains), west across southern Canada to eastern Alaska and south through the Rocky Mountains.  They are a rare breeder in northern New Jersey, but completely absent from Cape May (where we live) in the summer months.

Autumn is another story.  In the fall Sharp-shinned Hawks migrate south.  Fall and on through the winter, gardeners and those who maintain songbird feeding stations throughout the United States become quite familiar with Sharp-shinned Hawks.

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Be sure to include evergreens in your landscape plan. Cover is crucial, here a Red Cedar.

We’ve always considered it a compliment when a predator visits our wildlife garden

With the super abundance of critters in our wildlife habitat (songbirds, insects, reptiles and amphibians, moles and voles and shrews, rabbits and squirrels), it is only a matter of time before predators discover this surfeit of food.

Wildlife gardeners do not want to make it too easy for predators.  Brush piles, still-standing wildflower gardens through winter, and islands of evergreens should always be part of the landscape plan.  Consider it as leveling the playing field and not giving hawks and other predators an unfair advantage.

Our yard was bare when we bought our home 35 years ago.  We immediately planted young Red Cedars, White Pines, and American Hollies.  Many were seedlings that we transplanted.  Today these trees offer robust cover from bad weather and hungry predators.  We put an ugly chain link fence around our yard to fence in two rambunctious English Setters, who otherwise would have been gone like the wind.  We let Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy, seeded by the birds, creep up and through the fence.  Today it is a living fence offering crucial additional cover and food.

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Stll-standing wildflowers and evergreens in Sutton’s wildlife garden

A sizable brush pile is composed of fallen limbs and a few discarded roadside Christmas trees (skeletons now several years later).  This brush pile is the ultimate retreat for most songbirds when a hungry hawk shoots through our yard.  The evergreens, our living fence, and the brush pile have saved many a songbird’s life as they’ve escaped deep inside and out of a hawk’s reach.


Predators face life or death challenges every day

In the natural world predators face life or death challenges multiple times each and every day.  Many predators fail, especially in the first year of their life.  Immature Sharp-shinned Hawks are taught to hunt by their parents, but then they leave the family group and migrate south in the fall.  Now they are on their own.  Some thrive, sharpening their hunting skills day-by-day.  If an immature Sharpshin does not get the hang of it, it will surely starve.  It is that basic.  Some studies have shown that 75% of the immature hawks (young of the year) do not survive the first year of their lives.  If they do make it through that first year, the chances are good that they will live a long life.

Fall migration is one of the hardest periods in an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk’s life.  They are migrating using instinct to lead the way, heading to somewhere they’ve never been.  The route, barriers in their path (huge bodies of water like Delaware Bay and sprawling cities to name a few), concentrations of available food, safe places to rest, and the final destination are all unknowns.

Our wildlife gardens are like supermarkets to hungry predators

To a hungry hawk wildlife gardens are like supermarkets and likely to draw them back again and again.

Predators take prey constantly, but rarely do people witness it.  In our own yard we find many “fairy rings” of Mourning Dove feathers, perfect circles of their feathers.  This tell tale sign marks the spot where a hungry hawk sat and plucked the prey before feasting on the meat.

We once watched a Cooper’s Hawk take a winter-weakened Northern Mockingbird in our yard.  It was busy preparing its meal when suddenly a Red-shouldered Hawk attacked it.  We initially thought the Red-shouldered Hawk meant to steal the Cooper’s Hawk’s prey, but it soon became apparent that the Redshoulder was after a bigger meal, the Cooper’s Hawk itself.  Predators can easily become prey themselves if they let their guard down.  Larger predators often consider smaller predators as tasty treats.

Admittedly it was painful the time when a Sharp-shinned Hawk took one of our Downy Woodpeckers, another time a Northern Cardinal.  But the other day no tears were shed when a young Sharp-shinned Hawk caught and fed on a European Starling outside our window.

A friend shared his tale of a hungry Sharp-shinned Hawk visiting his wildlife garden.  All the songbirds flushed quickly and successfully into his several-year-old and sizable brush pile.  The Sharpshin would land on top of the brush pile mountain and literally bounce up and down, trying to shake the tangle of twigs and branches.  It then glared down inside.  Songbirds didn’t budge from deep inside the brush pile.  But the Sharpshin continued to bounce and glare.  This show happened not once but often and entertained our friend’s family for most of that winter.  Often it went away hungry.  The moral of this story is to not let a predator have too easy a time in your wildlife garden.  Be sure to provide lots and lots of cover!

Consider the many (all too many) bare and sterile yards full of non-native shrubs, little-to-no natural foods in the way of berries or seed heads for songbirds, no cover at all.  Sometimes stretches of sterile habitats in the way of side-by-side-by-side developments spread across the landscape.  This being the case, it should be no surprise that our wildlife habitats full of songbirds will see heavy predator visitation.

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Purple Finches attracted to Sutton’s garden and feeding station

When we create a wildlife habitat

we can not pick or choose

who comes to dinner

Predators are part of the package.  We can not pick or choose who comes to dinner and who does not come into our well-crafted habitat.

Sit back and enjoy the show of nature unfolding.  See it as a privilege to watch a predator doing what it does naturally, what it needs to do in order to survive.  Remember that predators target the weak or old or sick, the most vulnerable member in a group of birds, the slow poke.  It may hurt us to watch, but the remaining songbird flock is stronger for it.

Share the most memorable and / or most painful accipiter kill in your wildlife garden.

Pat Sutton, of Cape May NJ, is an author, educator, and naturalist who has taught gardening for wildlife workshops and led tours of private wildlife gardens for over 30 years. She shares her passion around the country at festivals and conferences and is available to speak to your group or organization.

© 2013, Pat Sutton. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Dee says

    Consider the many (all too many) bare and sterile yards full of non-native shrubs, little-to-no natural foods in the way of berries or seed heads for songbirds, no cover at all. Sometimes stretches of sterile habitats in the way of side-by-side-by-side developments spread across the landscape

    This says it all! I wish that people would give some thought to the nature around them when they plant lillies & burning bush plants everywhere. We are all connected, but that thought never enters their mind. When I talk about my butterfly garden, people are amazed, because it has never crossed their mind to plant for the birds, butterflies & other wildlife.
    Education needs to start in school, it would be so nice to have a gardening class, so children will learn about being stewards of the environment. When they grow up, buy a home & plant a garden, hopefully they will plant with nature in mind.

    • says

      Dee, keep sharing your keen excitement about your butterfly garden. Maybe share a divided perennial with those you’ve inspired to begin planting for wildlife. Nothing like a free plant to bring people on board. Luckily some schools have schoolyard habitats, often due to a teacher who has made it happen and utilizes the habitat with classes. The trick is getting the schoolyard habitat to be a whole school experience with all the teachers using it in one way or another.
      Pat Sutton recently posted..2013 Wildlife Garden Tours

  2. says

    Pat, What wonderful photos! I do think that accepting the natural cycle of life and death in our gardens can be a bit difficult at first, especially when it’s staring you in the eye. Last summer I walked out into the garden and inadvertently interrupted a hawk killing a rabbit. While it was a bit bloody, I found the whole thing a fascinating reminder of the ‘hidden’ life happening right under m nose in my very own garden. And, truth be told, since the rabbit had been feasting on some of my plants I wasn’t terribly sad to be rid of him.
    Debbie recently posted..Barking Up The Right Tree

    • says

      Debbie, it is a shock the first time (and nearly every time after too) to see predators in action in our wildlife gardens. Some fight it and miss out on these amazing close encounters. Others, like you (with the rabbit) and I embrace it and learn from it. As Ginny said so well above, these encounters DO affirm the success of our wildlife gardens.
      Pat Sutton recently posted..2013 Wildlife Garden Tours

  3. says

    Pat, ‘Sharp-Shin’ visits our house all summer long, especially in early summer when i suspect she is feeding her young. Her preying on songbirds is always such a mixed bag for us – we know that she needs to eat and feed her young, but so sad to watch the birds that have survived all winter suddenly become a pile of feathers. Although we can’t be sure, it seems like the same hawk comes back year after year sitting on the same branches surveying the feeders, waiting for one of the songbirds who have all frozen in place to move.
    Once we watched in amazement as another predator – a tiny Screech Owl – took out a grackle (a much larger bird than the owl) on the walkway in front of our house and then proceeded to slowly drag the grackle off our steps, down through the grass to a sheltered spot under the pine trees. It ate and slept there for three days until the grackle was only a pile of feathers.
    Predators ARE amazing!
    Kathy Settevendemie recently posted..Plants vs. ‘Plant Communities’

    • says

      Kathy, WOW! Love the Screech Owl encounter you shared. One snowy winter, we had one roosting by day in a nest box that we could easily see from inside our home. There was so much snow that we often scattered bird seed under an American Holly where the ground was bare and birds could more easily feed. Near dusk the Screech Owl would begin looking out of the box, always keenly studying this spot under the holly because of the frantic activity of feeding songbirds at the end of the day. When it was just about too dark to see (if we were closely watching the owl) we’d see it swoop down and begin its hunt under that holly. It was often so dark that we couldn’t tell if it succeeded or not.
      Pat Sutton recently posted..2013 Wildlife Garden Tours

  4. Lorraine says

    Love the description of the “fairy rings” of feathers. We have at least one pair of “Accipiter sp” (can’t decide if they’re Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s) and watching them dive into a large evergreen bush at full speed is incredible. Lots of Philadelphia Pheasant (what my neighbor calls pigeons!) for them to feast on. Last year we got a real treat – a young red-tail snagged a squirrel on the lawn and was so engrossed in his meal that he ignored me while I got some incredible pictures. He flew into a low branch eventually, and stayed for over an hour in the same position. I imagined it was like someone getting up from the Thanksgiving dinner table with a belly full of good food. I really enjoy all your articles, Pat, and can’t wait to meet up with you again soon.

    • says

      Lorraine, great imagery in your comment: Philadelphia Pheasant, belly full of good food after Thanksgiving dinner . . . Thanks for sharing your Red-tail encounter. Neat that you got such terrific photos because it was focused on feasting. Till we meet again!
      Pat Sutton recently posted..2013 Wildlife Garden Tours

  5. says

    Hey Pat – excellent article. After years of wondering why the hawks of our woodland backyard ignored the large population of squirrels, I saw a Coopers nab one a few weeks ago. It took over 2 hours for the feathered guy to finish his meal, dragging the squirrel carcass to several different perches during the meal. With amazement I watched another squirrel totaly ignore the the hawk eating its prey. I’d swear this squirrel sauntered up to within 2 feet of the hawk, looked at it, then continued about his business. This happened many times. Now that the hawk has tasted squirrel and apparently liked it, I wonder if the squirrels will become more wary. Keep up the great posts.

    Hal Mann recently posted..Thanks Santa

  6. Marian Jordan says

    I have seen a hawk take a rabbit years ago and swoop down on my feeding station fairly regularly but have not seen one taking a song bird. This morning, a first. As I was counting the birds at the station about 10 feet in front of my window, they scattered. Before I understood why, a small hawk landed on the squirrel baffle and surveyed the area as if to say, “Darn, missed again.” They usually swoop through, probably chasing one of the birds, but never stopping so close to the house. Pretty cool, wish I had my camera handy.

  7. says

    I always struggle with who kills what in front of me, but I do manage to get the camera and make a blogging moment of it all lol

    This week’s struggle is what hawk was visiting me. It is either a young red shouldered which are common around here or maybe a coopers or sharp shinned, which I have to admit I’ve never seen. BUT, usually the red-shouldered are so noisy that you just KNOW! This guy appeared 3 times but was quiet, thus my belief that it wasn’t the r.s. variety. It never made a sound, so I didn’t have that advantage to help me with an ID. I also got such lousy pics that they were no help with the ID either.

    Your fabulous photo is making me lean sharp shinned amd it did seem to be “birding” whereas the r.s. usually are looking for the mammals. I sure hope it comes back again during a time when there is better photographic lighting.

    Thanks for this informative article!
    Loret recently posted..Mountains in Florida?

    • says

      Loret, those Red-shouldered Hawks are indeed noisy when they come to visit. Red-shoulders are in the group of hawks known as Buteos and more substantial in size and build and adapted for soaring (spread their wings and fan their tails). Many of the buteos soar above prey, spot it, and drop down on the unsuspecting prey. Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks are in the group of hawks known as Accipiters. Accipiters are the bird-eating hawks. Their shape (rounded wings and rudder-like tail) is better adapted for chasing down their prey (songbirds) through the forest or tangles. They are, as you noted, silent in their approach. I’ll bet you did have either a Sharp-shinned Hawk or a Cooper’s Hawk visit your habitat. Sharpshins have a smaller head, Cooper’s Hawks have bigger heads. There are lots of other differences. I’m lucky to be married to one of the authors of the long-time classic, Hawks In Flight — the 2nd Edition just came out with color photos and lots of new text, additional species (not just migrants) . . . Sounds like it might be just the book for you in your quest to ID the hawks visiting your yard. Check it out:
      Pat Sutton recently posted..2013 Wildlife Garden Tours

    • says

      Hi Laurie,

      If hawks find a good supermarket full of birds they will eat there again and again. Hawks are opportunistic predators and often prey on weak or injured or sick birds, so are doing a great service by keeping the general songbird population strong by weeding out the unhealthy birds. What you can do to ensure that hungry hawks don’t take more than their share of birds, especially healthy birds, is to provide adequate COVER in your yard in the way of brush piles and / or NATIVE evergreen plantings (here in South Jersey that means Red Cedar and American Holly) nearby so that songbirds can flee to that cover and escape being caught by hungry hawks and other predators. If your feeding station is out in the wide open with no cover nearby, you are doing a great disservice to songbirds. Right now roadsides are littered with discarded Christmas trees waiting to be picked up. Collect a few of those and make a quick brush pile near your feeders and be amazed how active it becomes with the birds in your yard using it. All the best, Pat

      • Marian Jordan says

        I love shopping for Christmas trees for bird cover, curbside, after the season! Especially since we rarely have a real one of our own because we travel each year at holiday time. I love the different fragrances of the different trees. If I get a couple, I cut and place some of the branches among my perennials to keep them warm with the leaf litter that gets caught. It makes an extra place for birds to forage while the ground stays unfrozen longer. A few years ago, a woodcock survived when all was covered by deep snow for a few weeks, under some trees with Christmas tree branches. It was the only place it could probe into the earth for bugs with its long beak. I had never seen one before and have not seen it since.

        I had a juvenile hawk this summer who used my feeding station as a practice area. It was really funny sometimes to imagine what it was thinking each time it missed and looked around as if to say ‘Where did it go?’


  1. […] 101. Garden Predator — Sharp-shinned Hawk: Some folks are upset, indeed appalled, when a hawk raids their garden or feeders.  Others consider it an amazing opportunity to watch the age-old interactions of predator and prey.  Many or most raids are unsuccessful, but sometimes they score and possibly right in front of our eyes… ~Pat Sutton […]

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