The first day of 2015 produced some excitement in the yard here on Simerly Creek Road. I was watching a female Northern Cardinal — the first cardinal I had observed in the new year — as she foraged on the ground beneath one of the feeders. I even used my camera to take a few photos of her through the window.
I was getting ready to snap another picture when an intruder violently inserted itself into the scene, scattering other birds at the feeders. Everything happened so quickly I needed an instant to figure out what was happening.
A pair of spread wings eventually transformed into a full bird as my brain identified the intruder as an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk — and one that had just captured itself a meal, albeit at the expense of the cardinal.
With the cardinal secured in its talons, the hawk looked ready to consume its prey when an American Crow flew to a tree and perched overhead making its displeasure with the hawk very clear. The hawk hesitated and then took off, taking its prey with it and leaving with such velocity that it left the protesting crow far behind.
The Sharp-shinned Hawk became one of the first birds on a yard list I will be keeping in 2015. A couple of years ago I did a list of all the species of birds I observed in the five-county area of Northeast Tennessee. Such a list is fun to compile, but it takes a lot of dedication. I figure counting the birds that make an appearance in my yard from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 in 2015 is a more feasible goal.
In addition to the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Cardinal and American Crow, the other birds I’ve already added to my 2015 yard list are Mourning Dove, Great Horned Owl, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Towhee, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Purple Finch, House Finch, Pine Siskin and American Goldfinch.
That’s more than 20 species and the year is not yet a week old. My goal is to find at least 100 species in 2015. The tally will probably proceed slowly, but I will provide regular updates as I add new species to the list.
The Sharp-shinned Hawk and its larger relative, the Cooper’s Hawk, are the two raptors most often encountered by people who feed birds. Part of the family of Accipiter hawks, these two species are widespread in woodlands.
The Cooper’s Hawk is larger, often described as similar in size to an American Crow. The Sharp-shinned, on the other hand, is usually described as the size of a dove. There’s some overlap in size, so it is not the only reliable means of identifying these hawks. For example, female Sharp-shinned Hawks are roughly equivalent in size to a male Cooper’s Hawk. As with many raptors, the female is larger than the male in both these species.
There are some other things to look for in telling these species apart. For instance, adult Sharp-shinned Hawks often look like they have a dark cap or hood. The eyes on a Sharp-shinned Hawk also look like they are halfway between the front and back of the head. In addition, the head itself looks small in comparison to the overall size of this hawk’s body.
These two species feed heavily on songbirds, which causes some bird-lovers distress. When I posted photos of the incident with the cardinal and hawk to my Facebook page, a few friends were definitely upset that the cardinal’s stay in 2015 proved so brief.
I like to view these incidents as good examples of proper balance in the natural world. The Sharp-shinned is really beautiful, especially for a hawk. Preying on songbirds doesn’t make them “bad” birds. They’re doing exactly what nature intends for them to do. They’re extremely efficient predators, and I was impressed by both the power and precision deployed by the Sharp-shinned Hawk in capturing the unfortunate cardinal.
In case you’re worried about the cardinal population, later that same day a flock of about a dozen cardinals visited my feeders about a half hour before dusk. Predatory hawks are part of the balance in nature. It’s a balance that we should strive not to upset.
In the past few days, I have seen Red-tailed Hawk, Great Horned Owl and Cooper’s Hawk here at home (or within a few miles of my home) and I take that as a good sign. The absence of predators can be a sign that something’s wrong with the food chain. If the chain gets broken, everything (prey and predators) will suffer.
The Accipiter genus of hawks includes about 50 species. In Northeast Tennessee, as well as across much of North America, the two common species are Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk. A third species, the Northern Goshawk, is a rare visitor to the region.
The Northern Goshawk is a large, powerful hawk, and it is also fiercely defensive of its nest. This hawk is known to attack other raptors, mammals and even humans that stray too close to its nesting site.
Goshawk is a term derived from “goose hawk,” referring to the ability of this bird when utilized in falconry to take down such large prey as geese.
Other Accipiter hawks around the world include Spot-tailed Sparrowhawk, Rufous-chested Sparrowhawk, Grey-headed Goshawk, Semi-collared Hawk and Tiny Hawk, which is one of the world’s smallest raptors. This diminutive hawk is about the size of a European Starling and lives in Central and South America.
The Sharp-shinned Hawk will feed on a variety of birds, ranging in size from sparrows, warblers and thrushes to birds as large as Ruffed Grouse and Mourning Dove. This hawk also feeds on small mammals, reptiles and insects.
On Dec. 27, the resident flock of American Crows confronted a Red-tailed Hawk, eventually forcing the large raptor to leave it perch and depart the area. I’m hoping the Red-tailed Hawk will soon put in its first 2015 appearance. The first clue is usually a mob of angry and very vocal crows.
With safety in numbers, many smaller birds will gang up on raptors to drive them away. Crows can be quite merciless to both Red-tailed Hawks and any Great Horned Owls that they locate during the day.