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.
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.
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.
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.
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