Garden visits from traveling hawks

by Stan Cutler
Posted 10/29/20

We see birds at the feeders whenever we look out the back window. Valerie, my wife, fills feeders with shelled sunflower seeds three or four times a week. In early Fall, after the babies have fledged …

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Garden visits from traveling hawks

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We see birds at the feeders whenever we look out the back window. Valerie, my wife, fills feeders with shelled sunflower seeds three or four times a week. In early Fall, after the babies have fledged and are mobbing the feeders, she replenishes birdseed every day. Spring is the slowest season because, we guess, the adult birds are preoccupied building nests and finding mates.

We can’t usually spot the hawks, but we know there’s one around if there are no birds at the feeders. Occasionally, a hawk will perch on the limb of one of the maple trees, standing as still as wood, hoping that one of the little creatures who find our backyard congenial will show itself. The chipmunks hide. The squirrels hide. The birds hide. The toads are always hiding from the garter snakes. Once, a hawk landed atop the big azalea bush in our next-door neighbor’s yard. Valerie and I stood on the deck and watched it try to grab one of the dozen sparrows nesting in the bush. The big bird clambered across the top, frustrated, unable to penetrate the tight network of azalea branches. Then she came to ground and walked around the bush, leaping upward, hoping to scare a sparrow enough to come within her reach. There was much-excited chirping in the bush. Laughter, perhaps? Terror, more likely. Fifteen minutes later, after the hawk flew away, the songbirds were back at the feeders.

We see goldfinches, purple finches, several sparrow species, cardinals, blue jays, juncos three kinds of woodpecker, chickadees, house wrens, nuthatches, titmice and different migrant species on their way north or south.  Sadly, we haven’t seen a grosbeak in over a decade. Mourning doves feed off the ground like chickens. Their feet aren’t built for grasping, so they can’t grab the wire sides of the cylindrical feeder like the other birds. Valerie has a hanging tray with a screen bottom that she keeps filled - just for the doves. They are monogamous birds and usually visit in pairs. Valerie likes them because they aren’t skittish (they’re pigeons). She admires their graceful shape, their subtle tan plumage, and the way they coo.

Birds on the ground, like the doves, are easier hawk prey because they can’t escape downward. We’ve never seen the hawk kill one of the birds. But we’ve seen evidence of successful attacks – a few bloody feathers.  Neighborhood cats scale the chain link fence to hunt “our” birds. They hide under nearby bushes and try to pounce on birds grazing on seeds dropped by the slobs above. We like cats but shoo them away if we see them. Valerie says that it’s not fair to invite the birds for lunch and put them on the menu.

We think the raptor that visits our yard is a Cooper’s Hawk. This is just a guess because there are two other kinds that are almost identical to the Cooper’s: The Northern Goshawk and the Sharp Shinned. All three kinds live in Pennsylvania. While they can soar and stoop like eagles and falcons, they are woodland birds. They lurk in trees and attack their prey from the side after a short, sudden flight. They can live for 10 or 12 years, but about 80% don’t survive their first year. I suspect that a Cooper’s Hawk that has figured out how to survive within the city limits of Philadelphia is a smart, tough old bird.  Because of the season, it’s likely that the one in Valerie’s snapshot is a migrant heading south. It’s possible that this bird thinks of our backyard as like a turnpike rest stop.

Having grown up in an inner-city neighborhood, I understand the privilege of observing nature. I am grateful to have left the old neighborhood, lucky to sit on our tiny deck and watch wild creatures going about their lives. The constant activity at the feeders, the seasonal changes in plumage, the competitions and the squabbles, the occasional hawk-induced silences. Nice.

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