A visitor at the feeders - Kate Crowley
By Kate Crowley
Something wasn’t right. It was Monday morning and Mike had everything ready to begin his daily count for Feederwatch, but there were absolutely no birds to be seen. Even the squirrels were absent. The feeders had seeds in them, the skies were clear and it was -5F. There had always been a frenzy of activity on previous mornings with subzero temperatures, so this was a mystery, until the explanation flew into the spruce tree.
I was standing at the sink looking out the window when I saw the bird land. My first thought or impression was blue jay, but even though it had its back to me, I knew my first judgment was wrong. This was a hawk, an accipiter to be exact. In size it was very close to a blue jay, but it had a long barred tail and a blue gray back. It was a sharp-shinned hawk. We have had them visit our yard before, but not this winter. All the birds in the neighborhood knew it was nearby, even if we had not seen it.
While I watched it flew to a bare maple branch, in full view for all to see. I noticed a grey squirrel sitting stock still and pressed against the trunk of the spruce, but gradually the squirrels, both grey and red, began to venture out to eat the fallen sunflower seeds. They really didn’t have anything to fear from this small raptor because its main prey is songbirds. At one point it turned its head and looked down at the feeding squirrels, but then just as quickly turned away and ignored them.
Because the hawk had its back to the window, we could just barely see some of the rust colored, barred feathers on its breast. But in silhouette I could easily its sharply hooked bill. This is one of the key features found on raptors. It is used to cut up and eat the prey it catches. Raptors are also known for their strong and sharply curved talons. These are their killing tools. This is why you will see people who work with raptors wearing thick leather gloves on their hands.
The sharp-skinned hawk is the smallest of the accipiters (next in size is the Cooper and then the Goshawk) even so its talons can pierce the skin of the birds it catches. A ‘sharpie’ as it is known affectionately by birders needs to eat between 20 and 25 percent of its body weight in food each day. That comes out to about 25 grams per day. While birds are their main source of food, some small mammals (bat size) and large insects can fill out their diet when needed.
This bird sat for at least 30 minutes in the maple and the only activity we could see were the blue jays that were obviously agitated and restless in the plum bushes further down our front field. They were calling out slander and warnings and flying off across the road. There was no way this little raptor was going to pick off any birds near our feeder. Sharp-shin’s must depend on swift flight and stealth in order to catch their prey.
We noticed that the back feathers of this sharpie had some white blotches on them. This we assumed to be the result of the breeding plumage molt. In advance of the breeding season almost all birds will molt a fresh new set of feathers. Another feature of the sharp-shinned which we could not see clearly was the color of its eye. Immatures have a yellow eye, but as they mature the eye becomes a dark reddish brown. Based on the color of its feathers, this was an adult.
Most sharp-shinned hawks migrate south for the winter months, but some will remain in the north and are most commonly seen by people around their feeders. We don’t know where this hawk has been hanging out for all these long, cold months, but we would be happy if it chose to raise a family in our backwoods. They use mixed conifer and hardwood forests for their nesting territory. Sharp-shins, like many other raptors were decreasing in number at the middle of the last century because of the use of pesticides. Happily their numbers began to increase with the phasing out of those chemicals. Today, their main threat comes from logging of their necessary habitat.
While we really enjoy and appreciate all of the birds that come to our feeders, we know that in the scheme of things, some will become food for predators. I can much more easily accept their loss to feed a hawk than a feral cat. In terms of overall depredation, the hawk’s impact is minimal.