Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Missile with Feathers

Monday morning I caught a glimpse of a bird streaking past the window of the Naturalist's cottage. Initially I didn't pay a lot of attention to what it may be and assumed it was a Mourning Dove coming in for a landing in the yard. Eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I went to the window to have a look around. I didn't find the dove.

The bird streaking past the window was a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Apparently it was making a divebomb onto an unsuspecting American Robin. In the top photo the little hawk has already begun to pluck the feathers and dismember the the robin (the dark grey thing it's standing on is the robin). The picture is a little blurry from me shooting through the window and busy from all the leaves, but you might be able to see the red breast of the robin in front of the hawk's right foot.

The hawk's breakfast soon attracted the attention of an American Crow. Though the crow(17-21") was certainly larger than the sharpie (10-14"), it stood it's ground and refused to give up it's meal. Above you can see the sharpie finishing his breakfast of champions.

Sharp-shinned Hawks belong the group of hawks known as Accipiters, which also includes Cooper's Hawks and Northern Goshawks in this part of the continent. Accipiters have long tails and short, rounded wings, making them adept at hunting their main quarry: other birds. Small, woodland birds and mammals become quiet and still when these birds are suspected of being near. Nothing strikes fear amoungst song birds like the presence of Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks.

They attack with suprise at a high rate of speed and are exceptionally aggressive and relentless when pursuing their prey. I've witnessed a Sharp-shinned Hawk chasing American Goldfinches and Black-capped Chickadees around and around the gnarled branches of an apple tree. When one bird attempted to make a break from the tree for another safe haven, the sharpie snatched it straight away. This winter I watched a Cooper's Hawk make a dive at the bird feeders behind the museum and miss on its first attempt. Most of the sparrows fled into the pile of Christmas trees we had placed nearby, but their location was not lost on the Cooper's Hawk. The hawk landed right on top of the pile of trees, reached in with one foot, and grabbed a sparrow within a matter of seconds.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are migrating back to our area now. Funny how they're arriving about the same time as some of the other migrants (read robins)? Keep an eye in your yards and on your bird feeders. You may be offering more than just seeds this time of year!

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

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