Accipiters at Your Bird Feeder

by Simon Thompson

A flash of gray speeds past your window; there’s an explosion of feathers and the now-empty bird feeder is slowly swaying in the breeze. There are no birds to be seen and all is quiet. A medium-
sized, gray-backed, long-tailed raptor is sitting in a nearby tree pulling feathers from a dead mourning dove.

There are 2 birds of prey that regularly visit bird feeders. The Cooper’s hawk is the larger of the two, and a large female may be a little larger than a broad-winged hawk. The smaller sharp-shinned hawk is more uncommon in our area, with only a handful of pairs breeding in our mountain forests. A male can be just a little larger than a robin but just as aggressive at picking off smaller birds in wooded habitats.

Hawks that Hunt Birds

Both Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks are accipiters, a small group of bird-hunting hawks within the larger birds of prey family. The adults of both species have slate-gray backs with finely barred chest and underparts. Their wings are rounded and their long tails are banded with black and gray – both perfectly adapted to flying very rapidly through thick forests. The birds use their tails as rudders, as they use speed and maneuverability in order to ambush their prey.

The third member of the group is a very rare bird this far south. The Northern Goshawk prefers the spruce-fir and northern hardwoods forests of the far north, where it hunts larger bird species such as ruffed grouse. There are a few records for both North and South Carolina, but overall this species remains a very uncommon bird indeed.

Cooper’s hawks are far more common, and have adapted to our more suburban, and even urban, surroundings. As long as there are tall trees, these large hawks are happy to move into our neighborhoods, where they can conceal their nests in dense vegetation high in a tree. The smaller sharp-shinned hawk is also a visitor to our feeders, but they aim to snag a smaller bird, such as a titmouse or cardinal, while the Cooper’s hawk prefers birds the size of a mourning dove but will also take smaller birds such as robins.

Telling these hawks apart can be challenging. Cooper’s is overall a larger bird, but this is very hard to distinguish from just seeing a single bird. One has to then look at features, such as flight pattern, wing beats and overall shape. A Cooper’s hawk flying overhead tends to look like a cross with a prominent head extending in front of the wing’s leading edge. The tail is long with a rounded tip, which often has a white fringe at the tip. The flight pattern of the smaller sharp-skin is more rapid and dove-like and the tail has a squared-off tip. Youngsters are similar in shape and size to the adults, but are browner above with heavy streaking below.

Another reason that these accipiters are moving into neighborhoods is due to our habit of feeding birds. By filling our feeders and hanging out suet cakes, we are essentially laying out a buffet for these hungry raptors to enjoy. We can’t blame them for taking advantage of a perfect feeding opportunity, and whether we like it or not, these birds are only doing what comes naturally. They have to eat as well, and if all of the data from years and years of Christmas Bird Counts is accurate, there are more small songbirds, such as cardinals and titmice, than ever before.

So, this winter when a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned hawk stakes its territory near your bird feeder, take your time and study the accipiter. Look at the size, shape, length of tail and how it flies. Watch how it hunts and forgive it for doing what it is programmed to do when it grabs a bird.

Nature is just doing what comes naturally! And one more thing, the birds will come back to the feeders again after the hawk has left.

Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 20 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours. birdventures.com. If you have birding questions, please drop him an e-mail at the above site.

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