It is just about the time of year for my phone to start ringing with calls that begin much like this “Help there is a hawk in my yard eating the birds at my feeder! What should I do?” My answer is usually the same and often not much appreciated by the frantic caller “ That is why they call them bird feeders only some birds don’t eat seed” right about then there is usually dead silence for a second or two, and if they didn’t hang up on me by then I try to explain that is tough sometimes seeing some of your favorite birds becoming breakfast but you are witnessing nature at its best . We have to remind ourselves occasionally that raptors are birds that need food also, and in the great natural circle of life this supposed to happen, in fact if you never see hawks around your yard things are most likely not right and out of balance.
As Fall goes into winter many more birds of prey like Hawks , falcons and even owls will make New Jersey their home for the coming season. Even though we host many raptors that nest here in spring and summer many more will be joining them from the north and other species that only visit us in the fall and winter will be arriving and might claim your suburban backyard as their winter hunting grounds .
There are 3 species of raptors that are the most likely to visit your backyard
Red-tailed Hawk – Our most common year round raptor, the Red-tail is a (Buteo) and a formidable predator with females larger than males (as in all raptors). With sometimes more than a 4ft wingspan Red-Tails can be seen year round soaring through the sky and perched along roadsides waiting to pounce on its next meal. Their favorite prey is rodents, squirrels and rabbits but they do take larger birds also such as Grackles, pigeons, Mourning doves and pheasants. Red-Tailed Hawks have adapted well to city and suburban life and wont hesitate when hungry to pick-off a squirrel as you are relaxing in your backyard, my advice, sit back and watch nature in action.
Coopers Hawk– Our Coopers Hawk is listed as a species of “Special Concern” in New Jersey because of habitat lost and the early ravages of DDT , but since has slowly began to make a comeback. The Coopers is an “Accipiter” and are much more secretive and much less common than the Red-tail . The “Coop’s“ specialty is hunting birds and there is a good chance if you have a bird feeder a Coopers hawk will be spending lots of time in your backyard. Watching the Coopers hawk hunt is an incredible experience,. It has an amazing ability to maneuver astoundingly fast through dense brush to catch its rapidly evading prey.
Sharp-Shinned Hawk– The Sharp-shinned Hawk is our smallest accipiter gets their common names from the “shins” of its legs which are not round, but oval and rather sharp. Like its bigger relative the “Sharpie” favorite prey is birds but usually goes for much smaller size songbirds. The Sharp-shinned hawk is also listed a “Species of Special Concern in New Jersey and our breeding population is usually limited to the northwest part of our state. But winter is a different story as Sharpies adapt very well to the backyard especially when there is a birdfeeder nearby. Sharp-Shinned Hawks rely on the element of surprise, attacking from a perch or from flight. If one adopts your backyard this winter you will save some money on bird seed as you won’t be filling your feeders much since most birds won’t want to make themselves a lunch-time treat.
Helping your Birds avoid the Raptors – there are a few ways to protect your feeder birds even though a majority of the time hawks will fail at their many hunting attempts.
Provide cover -plant or put your feeders near evergreen trees and shrubs. Trees like spruce and pine make great cover for birds and even though hawks can fly into these tight areas and catch their prey having some cover to fly into will allow birds to avoid the larger hawks most of the time.
Create a brush-pile – Brush piles are simple to make, just lay branches and sticks over each other into a large pile , this makes a great hiding place for all potential prey and is easy fun project .
Raptors are protected under state and federal law but are still very misunderstood and unfortunately still shot and illegally killed by people who think they are helping the birds. The more we learn about these amazing birds the more we will appreciate how fortunate we are to have these birds in our own backyard