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Hawks on the Feeder – Ornithology


Years ago, some well-meaning bird lover passed away and left a pretty decent bundle of money to our local Audubon Society, but she stipulated that the funds are only to be used to benefit songbirds, not hawks. Now I’m not quite sure how one does that. If you improve the habitat for songbirds, you inadvertently do it for hawks as well. I’m not sure how you can separate the groups without caging them.

I’ve had Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks frequent my bird feeder often over the years. Can’t blame them of course, as they eat birds and small mammals, sharing them by size. Cooper’s will eat medium-sized birds like robins and jays and flickers while Sharp-shinned prefer sparrow-sized birds. And, according to a Proceedings of the Royal Society study, researchers obtaining their data through both remote sensing and Cornell’s Feeder Watch program, these hawks almost tripled their appearances around sites in Chicago over the past 20 years.

Why did these two hawks, members of the genus Accipter, increase in abundance and frequency of sighting, especially around a big city like Chicago? Well, as homes, schools, roads, parks, and other characteristics of urban architecture increased, so did city-frequenting birds such as House Sparrows, starlings, flickers, as well as others that visit bird feeders, which increased as households settled in. Some studies have noted that bird richness is higher in moderately developed urban systems than the surrounding wildlands. The open arrangement of the city – fewer trees and other obstructions for these fast-flying hawks, as well as concentrating birds at feeders, made their hunting easier.

Will this change things? Yes. A few years after wolves were introduced into Yellowstone Park and surrounding areas, the ecosystem began to change, for the better in many peoples’ minds. As the wolves lowered the population of elk, large hoofed animals that browsed on willows, the willows began to recover and as they did so muskrats and beavers, dependent on willows for food and lodging, began to recover their populations.

Could be the same is happening here as noted in a study entitled Birds in Urban Ecosystems. As hawks move into cities, they will prey on those urban avian denizens which some of us consider pests: starlings, House Sparrows, and pigeons. If that trend continues, then it can only be good news for native songbirds.

Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks will take a bird or two from your feeder once in a while but the effect on the songbird population is minimal. But if you are determined to protect the songbirds you can quit feeding for a few days so that all the birds forage in another location and hopefully the hawks will find happy hunting grounds elsewhere. Or, and I prefer this solution, plant bushes under and around the feeder(s) for the small birds to escape into for protection.

But try not to consider hawks as mean, nasty predators. They are just doing what they evolved for. It would be like criticizing sparrows for eating those cute grasshoppers and crickets.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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