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COLUMN: 'Neighbourhood terror' wreaks havoc at bird feeder

Sharp-shinned hawks are 'renowned for their acrobatics in aerial manoeuvres, being able to manipulate crazy fast turns and dives,' which is bad news for its prey
The appearance of this sharp-shinned hawk scattered all the regular visitors to the bird feeder.

The local birds swing by our feeders with great regularity, with peak action at 8:30, 12:30 and 4:30. In between these times it’s pretty quiet out there, save for a wandering woodpecker. But with every pass by of the kitchen window we always check anyways ... you never know when one will break with tradition. 

So it was a bit odd yesterday as I leaned against said kitchen window, chunk of lunch cheese in hand, doing a visual scan of the backyard. Hmm. Nooo-body! What’s up with that?

A good deep look revealed nothing, until I shifted my focus from far to near. And suddenly the whole scene made sense as I took a closer focus ... a very handsome male sharp-shinned hawk was sitting in the maple doing his own scrutiny of the yard! Way cool!

This little hawk has been observed before, yet usually at a distance as it carried away a hapless chickadee or junco. Bird feeders are thought of as a place for seed eaters to gather, but are often excellent dining spots for predators like shrikes and hawks.

Whenever a hawk can be seen by the songbirds prior to a diving attack, everybody caught out in the open freezes in position. And holds ... and holds ... and holds ... until somebody flinches and tries to break away.

Sharp-shinned hawks are renowned for their acrobatics in aerial manoeuvres, being able to manipulate crazy fast turns and dives. Most prey captures occur on the fly with this hawk, so best sit tight until it goes away.

Sharpies have a unique wing placement, that being well forward on their body. Almost like a butterfly swimmer, the huge shoulder muscles propel the bird forward in very powerful thrusts. An extra-long tail acts like a rudder and assists with the tight turns. As this bird usually hunts within a wooded area, this agility is a big plus to get through the tangles of branches.

Female sharpies are about 30% larger than the males, which seems to indicate they are on the nest (better egg coverage) more so than the males. This has an interesting association with food requirements. The male hunts aggressively and brings back warblers, sparrows, chickadees and small thrushes to the nest for his mate and the youngsters. He does have the odd habit of beheading his little gifts prior to presentation to the missus. 

Once the kids are hatched and growing with a more demanding appetite, the female joins in with the hunting and, being larger, can take down robins and mourning doves. 

Another trait of these hawks in their long legs and toes. They have been known to reach through wire mesh to take birds from banding traps. This species has a well-formed ridge on the front of its naked leg, hence the name sharp-shinned hawk. By comparison, a rough-legged hawk has feathers covering its legs right down to the feet.

As so here I was, eye-to-eye with a neighbourhood terror, trying to figure out if there were enough nanoseconds available to run to the studio, grab the camera and get back before it flew off. Maybe I should have been buying lottery tickets that day, as I managed to do the sprint and get back in time to snap a couple pics.

But then it just sat there. I moved to another window (one with newer, less wavy glass) and took a few more photos. Hmm. Things are going great. What are the chances I could open a window and shoot directly? Turns out the chances were strangely good, as the hawk continued to sit and take stock of the yard.

This high quality of encounter with a bird this flighty is almost unheard of, and I appreciate that all things cosmic aligned for me to get these images. Wow, so neat. I looked away for just a moment and in a blink he was gone; maybe a chickadee misjudged my interfering actions as an adequate distraction to allow for fleeing. Maybe not so good of an idea.

Over the past few weeks there have been piles of junco feathers found scattered throughout the red pine plantation, revealing that this hawk has been hunting the area with regularity. Nice to know that the woodlot is proving to be a good shelter for a variety of wildlife.

If it takes a lot of songbirds for a hawk to survive the winter; a simple food pyramid shows that there needs to be a lot of songbirds in the area. And there have to be more songbirds than a hawk’s diet can consume, so that means even more of the little birds need to be in the population. And all those little birds need a lot of seeds to sustain them through these cold weeks, so I guess that’s where I come in, by putting out several feeders around the yard.

Later that day my view from the window allowed for the notation of three chickadees, two juncos, a hairy woodpecker and a female cardinal. All is calm ... until it’s not.