Pile of Feathers Near Your Feeder? Hey, Hawks Need to Eat, Too.

Mar 28, 2018

Cooper's Hawk hunting Song Sparrows in Mark Faherty's yard. He eventually pulled one out of an old Christmas tree.
Credit Mark Faherty

If you feed the birds, then you may be feeding more birds than you had bargained for. Because where there are lots of birds, there are birds that eat birds. You might not be aware of the carnage, but if you look closely, you may see the telltale signs of bird on bird violence in your backyard.

In my experience, the evidence often takes the form of a pile of Mourning Dove feathers near the bird feeder. Mourning Doves, though fast and agile flyers, are a favorite food of hawks. Why? Let’s just say that, on the day they handed out brains to birds, the Mourning Doves slept in.

Though five species of hawks and three species of falcon nest and winter on Cape Cod, when we’re talking about yard hawks, we’re mostly talking about Accipiters – a group of lanky, fast, and breathtakingly agile woodland hawks, represented in these parts by the Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk.

With short, rounded wings and long tails, Accipiters are designed to rip through woods and dense thickets at breakneck speed in pursuit of their avian quarry. Telling the two species apart is not for the uninitiated, and even experienced birders get these flying identification quizzes wrong on a regular basis. If you’re looking to tell them apart, get yourself a Sibley Guide or one of the many specialty hawk identification field guides to help you, and expect to leave a lot of individuals unidentified.

While both species can be common on the Cape and Islands from fall migration through the winter and spring, the Sharp-shinned Hawk is a scarce breeder throughout the state, preferring big tracts of coniferous forest. There are very few nesting records for the Cape, but a couple of years ago, a family visiting Wellfleet Bay sanctuary found a nest with recently fledged young, and later the same summer I found another successful nest deep in the Cape Cod National Seashore.

But where Sharp-shins are picky, Cooper’s Hawks are more forgiving of our fragmented landscapes, and are happy to nest in young, mixed forest patches surrounded by suburbia. As a result, Cooper’s Hawks have seen a massive increase in Massachusetts over the last 40 years, while Sharp-shins have only shown a modest uptick in nesting records, as documented by Mass Audubon’s landmark State of the Birds Report. If you are one of the increasing number of backyard chicken farmers, you are probably already familiar with Cooper’s Hawks, and understand why old timers knew them as the Chicken Hawk. Red-tailed Hawks also have a taste for domestic poultry, and I understand both species prefer their chicken “Free-range”.

If you’re like me, you look forward to visits from these fierce-eyed backyard bandits, and relish the adrenaline rush of seeing one of our most impressive and athletic native predators in action. But maybe you’re not like me, in which case I’ll leave you with my stock response to the distraught feeder watchers who call the sanctuary to complain about the hawks eating “their” birds – hey, hawks have to eat too.

This piece originally aired in February, 2016.