So, one of your favorite pastimes during the winter months is to feed the birds. You love the variety of species, from chickadees, titmice, and woodpeckers to cardinals, finches, and sparrows. You are observant of the different methods each species uses to collect and eat the seed and suet you offer. And your handy bird field guide is kept within reach for the identification of any new avian visitors. Watching birds through a kitchen window on a cold winter morn is an easy and rewarding hobby and you affectionately and possessively refer to these feathered guests as yours.
Anyone who feeds birds near woodland edges may also be providing bird food of another sort. The sudden appearance of a hawk bursting onto the scene in pursuit of the fleeing songbirds is both a disturbing and an exhilarating experience. Typically, the hawk that just buzzed through your yard would be a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) or a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus). These accipiter hawks are built for speed and maneuverability among forest vegetation. Unlike the chunky Red-tailed Hawk that feeds mainly on rodents, these slim hawks feed primarily on other birds.
Like many other predators, these hawks suffered the wrath of humans long before laws were written to protect them. Hawks were frequently shot in large numbers as they migrated south in the fall. Then DDT took its toll, thinning the hawks’ eggshells and thereby compromising their ability to reproduce. Today, though both species are known to breed in the state, loss of dense forest habitats in our area will probably prevent these birds from becoming common nesters. The Cooper’s Hawk (pictured above) is listed as a threatened species in Connecticut and the Sharp-shinned Hawk is listed as endangered.
You are most likely to see Coops and sharpies during fall migration (mid- September to early November) or as winter visitors to your feeders, though it may not always be clear which species you are seeing. Similar in appearance, the Cooper’s hawk is the larger of the two species. And like most hawks, the females are quite a bit larger than the males. So, if you have a crow-sized hawk it is probably a female Cooper’s. If the hawk is robin-sized, it is probably a male sharp-shinned. Those confusing in-between ones may be either a male Cooper’s or a female sharp-shinned.
Winter survival depends on a creature’s ability to sustain itself. We all need to eat. If you witness a hawk preying on a songbird at your feeder you have been privy to an event that normally takes place every day in the hidden corners of the forest. Celebrate the wonder of life.