Under the Open Sky: Songbirds for Supper

By Kimberly Mason
For The Chronicle
Feeding the birds takes on a whole new meaning when your songbird feeding station turns into a accipiter banquet table.
Earlier this week I found a pile of Dark-eyed Junco feathers beneath my feeders, evidence that either a Sharp-shinned Hawk or a Cooper’s Hawk had dined there. (Both hawks prefer to pluck their prey before eating.)
Then just yesterday I heard a commotion on my front porch and turned to see a hawk sitting in the very same spot I had found a feral cat perched not long ago. Both Buddy the WonderDog and I were so startled by the sight, neither one of us could do anything but stare for the long 5 seconds the bird sat on the rail.

Buddy the WonderDog is a self-proclaimed barking bouncer of all bad birds from our front porch feeders (“bad birds” are, for him, all birds that quarrel or are of what he considers to be edible size), but this big, bad bird had him fearfully shivering where he sat.
The accipiter family of birds of the Pacific Northwest includes the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and the Northern Goshawk.

Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle. A feral cat discovers a songbird banquet table outside Chronicle Outdoors writer Kimberly Mason's window. According to the WDFW Living with Wildlife website, "Cats are the most significant non-native animal species affecting the decline of bird populations and are one of the most significant human-caused (by letting cats outside or supporting feral cat colonies) of bird deaths in the U.S."

 

Accipiters are birds of prey that have relatively long tails and short, rounded wings, which provide them with the ability to maneuver more easily through dense forests than their longer winged cousins.
I have identified the hawk in my own yard as a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but I may be wrong.
Even experts have trouble telling the difference between the Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk unless they are able to compare both birds side by side. The Cooper’s Hawk tail is slightly longer and more rounded at the end, the Sharp-shinned hawk is slightly smaller in size.
Both birds are sneaky, fast and agile fliers.

Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle. A juvenlile Sharp-shinned Hawk perches on an old farm gate a short distance from a group of songbird seed feeders. This hawk, with his long tail and shorter wings, is an acrobatic flier and songbird hunting specialist.

Songbirds — from American Robin-sized birds to the tiny Pine Siskin — are their favorite meals and comprise up to 90% of their diet.
They don’t swoop down on their prey from above, like an eagle or osprey, but use stealth and cover to ambush their prey.
I have seen one of these hawks quietly perched in a tree just around the corner from my front porch feeders and then later watch as he swoops at great speed under the porch roof and grab an unsuspecting bird from the porch rails.
It breaks my heart to lose even one tiny songbird — but, at the same time, it’s thrilling to see. (And hey, big birds have gotta eat too.)

Cat-astophe at the Feeders
I rarely have to worry about feral cats hunting at my bird feeders since Buddy the WonderDog is especially vigilant in his regular cat patrol, but every once in a while one sneaks its way into the yard to do a little hunting.
According to WDFW Living with Wildlife website, “cats are the most significant non-native animal species affecting the decline of bird populations and are one of the most significant human-caused … deaths of birds in the U.S.”
They recommend that you do not feed birds on the ground or on platform feeders if cats frequent your yard; leave 15-20 feet between feeders and shrubs so birds can see lurking cats; and surround the area immediately around the feeder with an 18” high chicken wire barrier where birds feed on the ground.
“Responsible cat owners keep their cats indoors – it’s best for the birds and for the cats,” says the WDFW site.

Visit WDFW Winter Birds
The WDFW Living with Wildlife website is a great source of information. Visit the “Winter Bird Feeding page at wdfw.wa.gov/living/winter_feeding/index.html.
Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer and photojournalist. Visit her website at almostdailynews.com, find her on Facebook (Kimberly Mason – The Chronicle), call 269-5017 or email kim@almostdailynews.com.