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My friend Susan Morrisson, who lives on the north end of Mercer Island, recently left a message on my answering machine.
``This morning when I looked out in our yard, I saw a hawk tearing apart a bird. There were bird feathers everywhere. That hawk was quite something to watch. We decided after looking carefully at our bird book, it must be a Sharp-shinned hawk.''
Perhaps you too have noticed hawk activity at your bird feeder. The juncos, towhees and chickadees are feeding calmly when all of a sudden a flash of brown streaks toward the feeder, sending the small birds to dense brush or distant trees for protection.
Often the hawk misses, since many of the winter hawks are young birds (hatched this past summer), and haven't yet refined their hunting skills. However, Susan observed the result of a successful attack, and the hawk feasting.
A smallish 10- to 14-inch woodland hawk, the Sharp-shinned hawk preys chiefly on small birds. These feisty hawks, called ``Sharpies'' for short, have learned that bird feeders are a good source for their next meal. With relatively short, rounded wings and a long tail, Sharpies easily weave through branches of trees and maneuver near ground. They depend on short, fast bursts of flight to catch their prey.
If the Sharpie misses its prey, it may pull up and land on a low branch of a tree. You can observe the bird's small head, striped belly and long, banded tail. Male Sharpies have gray plumage on the back; females and juveniles have brown backs. (The ``sharp shin'' refers to a narrowing of the leg, but doesn't help with identification.) While the Sharp-shinned hawk is in the neighborhood, your birdfeeder will have little activity.
A second common woodland hawk that also preys around bird feeders is the Cooper's hawk. These two hawks are frustratingly similar, however, with a couple identification clues, one can tell them apart, even if their visit is only a dark flash.
The Cooper's hawk is larger at 16 to 20 inches and appears lankier. It has a longer, more rounded tail and stronger contrast between the back and the head. This hawk chases larger birds including jays, starlings, doves and crows. Sometimes the prey is nearly as large as the Cooper's itself. I recently read a story of a Cooper's hawk successfully hunting a Northern flicker.
As the hawk flies, carefully watch its flight pattern. The Sharp-shinned often includes a bit of a flutter in the flight pattern. Both it and the Cooper's follow the flap, flap, flap, flap, glide pattern, but the Sharpie throws in a momentary ``fussing'' with its wing tips.
At the end of Susan's message, she admitted that she didn't go outside to examine the scattered feathers and determine which of her regular little birds became the hawk's meal.
It doesn't upset me to have Sharp-shinned or Cooper's hawks using my feeder as hunting grounds. Like Susan, I am amazed at the dexterity and skill of the hawk. I'm reminded that all parts of our environment, even a bird feeder, represent an ecology of bird life. Interactions between predator and prey, even if they seem a harsh reality, have a place.
If we enjoy the sight of a Bald eagle atop a Douglas fir tree, the lazy wheeling of a Red-tailed hawk against a brilliant blue sky or the dexterity of a woodland hawk, we must allow these predators to feed themselves and their young.
If a Sharp-shinned or Cooper's hawk is lurking about your neighborhood and your favorite feeder birds are holed up in protected foliage or have skulked off to safer feeding grounds, don't fret. In the meantime, you can take a break from filling your feeders and try to figure out which of these two woodland hawks is responsible for the dearth of feeder birds. Soon the hawk will move on too, and the little birds will wander back.
Frances Wood is the author of ``Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West.'' She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org