Lively backyard bird feeders a smorgasbord for hungry hawks

The Baltimore Sun

In winter, my backyard looks like the mall food court.

Dozens of birds line up at my feeders and suet holders like hungry teenagers: jays, flickers, wrens, house sparrows, cardinals, all shoving each other out of the way.

This time of year, there is also plenty of action in what my son calls "the bird hot tub," a heated birdbath that does not freeze when other sources of water do.

I am not a knowledgeable bird-watcher, but I love to sit in my kitchen and take in the action outside the sliding glass door. I have gotten my husband and daughter to pay attention, too.

One morning, my husband called me to an upstairs window, where our movements wouldn't spook the birds. To my surprise, the yard was as empty and quiet as a playground after recess.

Where was everybody?

My husband pointed to the fence. There sat a hulking figure with hunched shoulders and a curved beak. The hawk was waiting for its prey to return. When no birds came, it hopped off the fence and seemed to pursue a mouse or something underneath the hedges in my neighbor's yard.

Soon the bird departed, its enormous wings moving in what looked like slow motion.

It was not my first encounter with a hawk, and my subsequent research suggested it might very well be the same one I saw months ago.

Last summer, the three-story maple tree in the backyard had shed its leaves and died, removing its protective canopy. And the birds, which I feed even in summer, were exposed to the keen eyes of predators above.

As I sat watching from my kitchen on a sunny afternoon, a hawk dove at the bird bath and, with talons cocked and wings spread, grabbed a pair of birds who were splashing like toddlers in a wading pool.

It was the most dramatic moment I had witnessed in all my years in the garden, unless you want to count my reaction when I found a black snake in the compost pile.

I had unwittingly set the table for the hawk, just as surely as I had placed seed and suet for the songbirds.

"You created an opportunity for the predator to take advantage of the prey," said Robert Beyer, associate director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "And I don't mean that in an unkind way."

Beyer is pretty sure the hawk "remembered" my feeders, in the sense that it had added my backyard to the areas it searched for food.

"They are creatures of habit," he said, adding that he thinks it was probably a red-tail or a red-shouldered hawk. "They search for food sources and once they find them, they key in on them until the food source dries up."

Same with the songbirds. I am on their food circuit, but they aren't smart enough to "remember" what happened that fateful summer afternoon.

"All they care about is their full gut," Beyer said.

I will probably see more of this hawk and its friends. Their summer food source of mice or rabbits is not plentiful in winter, so they will be watching for activity in the feeders in my neighborhood.

To protect the songbirds, Beyer recommended that I place the feeders under an umbrella or buy a couple of covered platform feeders that might hide the birds from the eyes in the sky.

"They are not helpless. They are small and fast and elusive," Beyer said.

He agreed that what I had seen this summer was dramatic but by no means uncommon. "It is nature at its cruelest. But it is a reality that most people never see," he said.

"Most people think Walt Disney has the franchise on presenting wildlife."

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