One of the things about having bird feeders is that they will not only attract songbirds, but often will provide some good hunting opportunities for raptors. In our area the types of hawk that we find stalking bird feeders are the Cooper’s hawk and the sharp-shinned hawk. These hawks belong to the accipiter family which mostly prey on other birds and are typically found in wooded areas. They are built for speed and maneuverability, with short wings and long tails, in order chase their prey through trees and shrubs. Yesterday I saw this Cooper’s hawk swoop in on the feeders and pick off a mourning dove.
If you find a red-tailed hawk or a broad-winged hawk around your yard, it’s probably hunting rodents. They are members of the buteo family which tend to hunt their prey from far above (perched high, or soaring in the air) and then catching it on the ground. They are adapted to hunting with long wings and a short tail.
It’s interesting to see the reactions of the songbirds when these different types of hawks appear. If there is an accipiter in the area, the birds either scatter or freeze in place and sound the alarm (chickadees and bluebirds are especially talkative) until the coast is clear. When a buteo is around, they pretty much completely ignore it. For example, when this broad-winged hawk was perched in the back of the yard, the other birds were coming and going from the feeders as usual. Recently I saw a pileated woodpecker going up the trunk of the same tree where a red-tailed hawk was perched. The songbirds definitely know the difference!
Identifying a Cooper’s vs a sharp shinned hawk can be tricky. The two look very similar, although usually (but not always) the Cooper’s is larger and most of them migrate south for the winter, while the sharp-shinned hawk is small and more commonly seen here in the winter. Their ranges overlap here, and at any given time it’s possible to see one or the other, so it’s important to understand the subtle differences between the two in order to identify them. Size alone is not a good indicator, because a large female sharp-shinned can be the same size as a small male Cooper’s. There are some good resources online, for example this checklist put together by Feederwatch.
Sometimes it’s not possible to see the shape of the tail or get a good view of the legs, which are probably the most commonly used method of identification. In the case of these two hawks I’ve seen in the back yard, it’s easy to tell the difference just by looking at the head. The Cooper’s hawk has a dark cap on top of its head, and the head has a flattened shape, while the sharp-shinned hawk has more of a hood, where the back of the neck is also dark, and its head looks more round.
After the Cooper’s hawk left yesterday (it spent over 2 hours in the pine tree resting/eating), I went back there to see what it left behind. I found many mourning dove feathers from what it had just eaten, but I also found remnants of previous meals consisting of downy woodpecker and blue jay feathers. This is an adult hawk and an experienced hunter. They learn quickly where the best food sources are, and I’m sure it’s a daily visitor to the yard. I rarely see it, but I often see the feeder birds frozen in place, so I know when it’s around by watching their reaction. There is plenty of cover for them around to evade capture. We do have an abundance of woodpeckers, mourning doves, etc. so the hawk is help keeping the population in check. Now if it would only take care of those house sparrows …