Wednesday, December 12, 2007

When Death is on the Wing

Male sharp-shinned hawk.

We've had a male sharp-shinned hawk haunting our farmyard and feeding station. I can see why he's coming here. We've got a plethora of feeder birds, some of whom seem to NOT KNOW WHAT AN ACCIPITER IS.

Well, in case any of our backyard birds are reading Bill of the Birds (and they SHOULD be) an accipiter is a bird of prey that specializes in eating other, smaller birds. Sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks are our two widespread and common accipiters across most of North America. A surprising number of people who feed birds also get to see birds feeding upon birds at their feeding stations when an "accip" bursts into the yard to nab a victim.

Short, rounded wings and a long rudderlike tail (a build like a fighter plane) allow Coops and sharpies to pursue songbirds at high speeds through wooded habitat. They either sit and wait for a bird to pass by, or they soar high overhead and make a dive on unsuspecting birds below--often coming at them directly out of the sun, a strategy that fighter pilots often use.

This male sharpie is unflappable. He lets us snap his photo out the windows of Julie's studio and he even let me walk out the door and sneak within about 30 feet of him as he sat on the crossbar of our feeder set-up.

I love having this bird around. He's keeping our birds on their toes and keeping their populations healthy by weeding out the slow, sick, and weak.

He's not here everyday. Every third day or so I find another pile of cardinal or junco or goldfinch feathers in the yard. Then I know that death has come again, on the wing, passing through this old ridgetop farm.

It is stealth then flashing pursuit. Talons grabbing, parting feather barbules and piercing skin, a songbird's tiny heart racing through its last few beats. Blood droplets merge with the soggy soil. Then the coup de grĂ¢ce, and Nature, red in tooth and claw, heaves another sigh of contentment.

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At 2:44 AM, Blogger Marvin said...

Nature is like that. Great photos.

At 6:34 AM, Blogger Jayne said...

Isn't he just beautiful! I love to see them in action. Course, now that you've warned all the backyard birds they'd better watch out, they'll all have mace or something, and he'll have to move on. ;c)

At 11:04 AM, Blogger dguzman said...


At 12:30 PM, Blogger [email protected] said...

Wonderful photos Bill and I always love seeing these guys in the yard (except that they are taking the good birds)!

At 1:32 PM, Blogger Douglas M said...

Excellent reminder of the reality of nature and a couple of pretty darned good photos too. Thanks!

At 3:47 PM, Blogger Trixie said...

And apparently, they are really good at disapproving.

At 4:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We also have a Sharp shinned who has been hanging around for three weeks now. It's amazing how quickly the birds scatter from the feeder. I must admit, I'm not sure why he continues to sit on a bare branch not two feet from the feeder. Does he really think the birds will come back while he's there?

Great photos.

At 7:18 PM, Blogger Tom said...

Awesome pictures, this must be quite a bird to see in person. Thanks for the photos.

At 2:06 PM, Blogger Mary said...

Hawks are beautiful - I've seen a Coopers fly above my head with a Mourning Dove picked from the crowd... I know they need to eat but your description of a little songbird's imminent death haunts me.

Good post :o)

At 10:35 AM, Blogger Toni said...

Oh what a description you give. I have a Coopers Hawk visit my feeders here in the city. A week ago I had one come into the yard and stay awhile and it let me get some great photos also. I got within about five feet from it. I posted the photos her if you wish to take a look.

At 11:30 PM, Blogger April said...


Thanks for posting the photos. I don't know poo about birds, except for the common ones.

I pulled into my driveway last week, and sitting on the fence, not 6 feet away, was a medium sized hawk. I looked at him for a good 10 minutes. Of course I did not have my camera! He flew away when I had to get out of my car.

Every year, at least once or twice a year, I have a medium sized hawk pick a bird off my feeders right in front of me. I always thought they were Cooper's Hawks, and a look at my Sibley's book confused me..1st year Cooper's perhaps? but your photos showed me that they're Sharp-Shinned. Thanks!

At 2:28 PM, Anonymous Flu-Bird said...

I see kestrels sitting on telephoe wires and fences around here which is mostly rural but we also have BALD EAGLES living in our area as well in NORHERN CALIFORNIA


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