Accipiter striatus: raptors at backyard bird feeders

February 2, 2009

The old lilac bushes, the suckering variety, like the caragana (Caragana arborescens) that border the property, provide a windbreak. The constant chirping chatter and squabbling of sparrows can be heard as we approach their favourite lilac bush, interrupted by moments of silence when we reach inside their radius of protection. As soon as we move out of this threshold of discomfort they begin again.

The common sparrow is resented by some humans for displacing other more charismatic bird species. But the flock that have adopted our collection of feeders hanging on the caragana just outside our living room window, provide an everyday charm for our guests and ourselves.

I thought that the dense growth of the old lilac bushes, the caragana, cedars and white spruce would have provided more cover and therefore safety for them. For several days this week we noticed that the feeders were virtually untouched by the neighbourhood sparrows and chickadees. I thought it was because of the unusually strong winds but then I observed a sharp-shinned hawk perched on the chimney of the garage in the lane behind our home. Sharp-shinned hawks also feed at our feeders, but they are feasting on smaller birds that we have unintentionally provided for them.

The long-tail and short broad rounded wings and a long tail helps them maneuver in flight and they are capable of tight steering and sudden dashes. From their concealed perches, these raptors spot their prey (small birds and mammals) with their keen vision, ambush it, snatch it, carry it off. The they kill it with their long sharp talons.

One morning we found a dead white rabbit obviously pierced by razor sharp talons, then for some reason dropped in mid-air. Perhaps it was an adult who hovered briefly just above our house as it attempted to pass the prey – by kicking it towards the fledgling – to an unskilled youngster, fresh out of the nest, who failed his test.

As more of us northern bird lovers fill feeders in the winter, fewer hawks migrate south apparently, preferring instead to stay farther north near a dependable food source we unwittingly provide: feeder birds (Bildstein and Meyer 2000).

Bildstein, K. L., and K. Meyer. 2000. “Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus).” In The Birds of North America, No. 482 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

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