Wednesday, Feb 05 2014 06:00 AM

Pen in Hand: How to attract a hawk with bird seed

Related Photos

This Sharp-shinned Hawk was drawn to our bird feeders -- or more specifically, to the birds that visit the feeders. Photo courtesy of Jon Hammond

A feather pile reveals a successful hunt on the part of the Sharp-shinned Hawk. Photo courtesy of Jon Hammond

Two male House Sparrows watch nervously from a lilac bush. Photo courtesy of Jon Hammond

With the Sharpie in the neighborhood, House Sparrows like these stayed close to this old wild blackberry vine. Photo courtesy of Jon Hammond

I like to put out food for the wild birds at our place, especially in winter. We have a couple of feeders, and they attract the usual mix of feeder birds: House Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, House Finches, Eurasian Colored Doves, Brewer's Blackbirds, and lately Red-winged Blackbirds and Dark-eyed Juncos as well. Other species appear from time to time, but the ones I listed are daily visitors.

But when you attract songbirds, you also draw the attention of bigger birds -- ones that like to dine not with songbirds but on them. Namely, Sharp-shinned Hawks and their larger relatives the Cooper's Hawks. These raptors are from a genus known as Accipiters, and they dine mostly on other birds. They have long legs and long sharp talons and these full-throttle birds typically catch their prey on the wing.

In winter, the number of Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks in the Tehachapi Mountains rises considerably, as birds from more northerly areas and higher elevations move down to hunt in somewhat warmer regions. Bird feeders draw them in because the congregation of smaller birds makes good hunting conditions for these adept winged predators. So ironically, putting out bird seed attracts raptors -- not because they want millet or sunflower seeds, but because they want to eat the birds that do.

I walked out of the house a few days ago and the usual cacophony of twittering, vocalizing songbirds was subdued. In fact, all the birds I could hear were more distant -- the birds I typically hear around the feeders had fallen silent. "Hmm, there must be a shark in the lagoon," I said to myself, referring to an Accipiter. As I walked toward the outbuildings, I looked closely in the trees and shrubs near the bird feeders and sure enough, I saw the shape of a large bird, maybe 15 inches tall sitting in a Siberian Elm. It darted away as I drew closer, and I could see the distinctive black and gray banded tail of large Sharp-shinned hawk. The raptor flew off in the direction of the trees at my brother's house.

The songbirds were hunkered down low, taking shelter in the densest shrubs and bushes they could access quickly -- a favorite hiding place is an old wild blackberry vine whose thorny canes keep predators at bay. The minute a bird of prey is spotted in the neighborhood, the smaller birds grow very quiet and seem to vanish, though they are sheltering in the same areas they were moments ago. As I put gas in our 1956 Ford tractor and worked around outside for about a half an hour, the songbirds grew more relaxed with no Accipiter in sight and began to chirp again and visit the feeders.

I went out back to feed our pigs and work at the barn. When I returned about an hour later, I saw a fresh pile of small gray feathers on the ground. "I guess someone got careless," I said to myself and any small birds that might have been listening. When raptors consume another bird, they carefully pluck off most of the feathers, leaving distinctive little scatters of feathers that reveal where a meal took place.

So, as I fill the bird feeders at our place, I know that I am feeding sparrows, finches, blackbirds, doves, and occasionally, hawks. The circle of life continues.

Have a good week.

JON HAMMOND has written for the Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to:

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