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Devoted to Helping Birds from the Backyard to the Boondocks



By Charles Kennedy

A Blue Jay shrieks a warning cry! Pandemonium sweeps across the yard as birds flee in all directions. A Chipping Sparrow delays a few seconds too long before taking flight and is caught a couple of feet above the feeder by a small blue-backed hawk. The two birds tumble to the ground where the sparrow is quickly killed and eagerly devoured by this villain of the forest. 

Sharp-shinned Hawk and Ruby-throat by Bill Summerour
Hawk and Hummer by Bill Summerour

When people see a Sharp-shinned Hawk taking a meal at the bird feeder their sympathies are almost always with the prey, not the predator. The reaction is usually "how horrible! What can be done?" The answer, easy to give but difficult to accept, is nothing. Human sympathies do not fit into the natural world. Animals, birds, and plants are interrelated and interact with each other in patterns that have evolved over millions of years. The Sharp-shinned Hawk is just one more bird coming to the feeder. He doesnít eat seeds though, he eats the "birds" that eat the seeds.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are found in Alabama primarily in the winter. Their similar, but larger, cousin the Cooperís Hawk is present year round. Both are in the family known as accipters. They are woodland hawks that feed mainly on small birds but will also eat rodents and insects.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is about the size of a robin. Adults have a blue back and a rusty breast with white bars. Young birds are mostly brown with pale spots above and are streaked and barred with brown below. The tail is relatively long and the wings are short and rounded. I have often heard them referred to as "Blue Darters".

The "Sharpie" is well built for capturing birds on the wing. The short, rounded wings allow him to snake through tight places and to make quick turns. The long tale serves as a rudder. This alone however does not make him a match for a healthy chickadee or titmouse. The element of surprise gives the hawk a couple of seconds advantage. He still misses quite often though.

Studies show that sick and crippled birds are the ones most often caught by accipters. Big flocks of birds concentrated at feeders are an unnatural occurrence in the natural world. In these gatherings disease can spread quickly. By culling the sick birds, Sharp-shinned Hawks help to prevent this.I have noticed that when the birds at my feeders sense danger their first reaction is to freeze. Sometimes its a passing cat or dog. A loud or unusual sound can trigger this reaction and a large bird flying over will always cause it. If an attack occurs the birds head for cover, if not they resume feeding after a few minutes. When I see the birds get very still during the winter months I scan the trees for a hawk. I usally spot old "Sharpie" on his favorite perch.

My most memorable experience with a Sharp-shinned hawk, with any bird for that matter, occurred in January of 1988. This happend at my fatherís home  in Greenville, Alabama. Dadís life was approaching its end and his winter day consisted of sitting in the kitchen by an old space heater, chain-smoking Benson and Hedges cigarettes, drinking coffee and listening to country music on the radio. When he wasnít reading the paper he was watching birds on a feeder that was just outside the window. It was my custom to stop by around noon several times a week. Sometimes we would have lunch; we always sat and talked and watched the birds on the feeder.

This particular January day was very cold. There were more than a hundred birds in our field of view. I looked across the yard and saw a small hawk perched atop a clothesline post. Before I could even say "thereís a sharpie", he was in the air headed toward the feeder. He nailed a House Finch on the feeder and sat there clutching him in his talons not 15 inches from our unbelieveing eyes. During the next 5 minutes we witnessed an absoultely grisly spectacle.

The larger feathers were quickly plucked off and discarded. The still fluttering captive then literally lost his head. With a hooked beak perfectly suited for the task the hawk pulled strips of flesh from the breast and back. The legs, wings, and entrails went down the gullet next and then with a final gulp the meal ended as the lungs and still quivering heart disappeared.

With a flash of wings the "Blue Darter" was up and away. We watched through a flurry of finch feathers as he resumed his hawking post to watch for his next victim. Too dumfounded to speak, I just muttered "uuh". The old man fired up a Benson and Hedges and said, "that was the damndest thing I ever saw."

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