Oh, No,
There's A Hawk
At My Feeder:
The Bird Watchers' Dilemma,
Or Is It?

by Stephanie Streeter

from DVRC Journal Fall/Winter 92

When bird lovers fill their feeders, their intention usually isn't to feed all of the birds, raptors included; yet that is often what happens. Hungry hawks, attracted by the large number of songbirds congregated about feeders, satisfy their hunger by eating at the feeder, too. Their fare, however, is not seeds, but the birds that eat them.

Sharp-shinned Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk
During the year, especially in the winter, we receive calls at the raptor center about hawks at feeders and what can be done about them. There are two alternatives: temporarily stop feeding the seed eating birds, or continue to feed all of the birds. Shooting or trapping raptors is not an option -- both are illegal.

The first solution, not filling the feeder, will cause the seed eating birds to disperse, in turn, removing the hawk's ready source of food. When the area around the feeder no longer provides a good hunting spot, the hungry raptor will search for food elsewhere. Two weeks to a month of an empty feeder should be enough time to discourage a hawk.

If you hesitate to stop feeding the birds because you fear they will starve to death without the seed you provide for them, stop worrying. A recent study on the feeding habits of chickadees at bird feeders showed that the seed in feeders supplies only a small portion of their daily food requirement. No matter how quickly seed vanishes from feeders -- at our house it seems to disappear before we can get back into the house after filling the feeder -- the birds being fed are still getting the majority of their food from natural sources, even in the winter.

The killing of a bird at your feeder may be too graphic a view of nature for you, especially if the bird caught by a hawk is as delicate as a mourning dove or goldfinch, with no life-saving defenses at its disposal other than its reflexes and speed. If this is the case for you, as it is for many people, then choose the first option to discourage a hawk at your feeder.

The second option, feeding all of the birds, even the raptors, means some of the birds at your feeder will die. It also means, however, that you will be afforded the opportunity of witnessing, first-hand, the relationship between predator and prey, rather than watching it on the Discovery Channel or PBS on TV.

If you have a hawk at your feeder, instead of labeling it a nasty feathered killer, take the time to watch and learn more about it. The hawk's many misses compared to its few successful strikes will soon make it obvious how difficult sustaining life can be for birds of prey.

Perhaps you will be able to more fairly view a hawk at your feeder by keeping in mind that raptors, like most humans, are carnivores, that is, meat eaters. Actually humans fall into the omnivore category which means we can and do eat other foods in addition to meat. Birds of prey, on the other hand, can only eat other animals to survive. They cannot, like we humans, derive their protein from vegetable sources and remain in good health. A few years ago, a state game protector seized a red-tailed hawk and a turkey vulture from a Pennsylvania woman who claimed to be a bird rehabilitator, even though she was not licensed by the state or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In addition to the injuries that initially placed the raptors in her hands, both birds were dehydrated and malnourished. They died hours after being seized, not from their injuries, but from starvation. The woman felt, and still feels despite the birds' deaths that none of God's creatures should eat any other living thing. She told the game protector she fed the two raptors peanut butter sandwiches because of peanut butter's high protein content. Fine for humans, but not for birds of prey. What they needed while captive was their natural animal diet.

Statistically, as many as 80% of some species of raptors die before they are a year old. In the first few months of their lives they must learn how to fly and to hunt. Becoming a skilled flyer is no easy task; we have had young hawks brought to DVRC that have sustained injuries, and have even died, because they had not mastered the art of flying. A few years ago, a man brought in an unconscious, juvenile red-tailed hawk he had watched fly into a tree trunk. The hawk had misjudged both its speed and the distance to the branch it wanted to alight upon. It died shortly after its arrival because of a broken neck. Also treated at DVRC were two young raptors who, in separate incidences, ended up in lakes after overshooting their intended perches. They were saved from drowning by the alert people who rescued them. Others, not so lucky, missed their perches and ended up on the road where they were struck by cars. They were rendered flightless before they had a chance to test their wings.

There's no doubt about it, learning to fly is a tricky business, but learning to hunt is even trickier because a young raptor's meal is mobile and usually trying to make its escape. If an immature hawk does not learn how to catch enough food to sustain its life during the summer months when food is plentiful, it is sure to perish during the winter when less prey is available and the surviving young prey species have learned how to avoid predators.

Did you have trouble understanding Darwin's theory, the survival of the fittest through natural selection, when it was presented to you, perhaps, by a droning science teacher in a musty, old classroom? If you set aside your prejudices while watching a hawk make a kill at your feeder, you'll have the best lesson of all on the survival of the fittest -- a living demonstration right outside your window. It is difficult for most of us to watch a bird die, but the bird at your feeder was caught by the hawk for one of several reasons, and no, it wasn't because it was your favorite bird. It was successfully captured because it may have been an old bird, who's reaction time was no longer quick enough to save it, or it may have been a young bird that hadn't learned to evade a predator's strike. The bird may have been ill or even inattentive for just that one fatal moment. Whichever reason placed the bird in the talons of the hawk, it meant that bird was not one of the best of its species. Raptors, like other predatory animals, will not hunt healthy, strong and swift animals as their prey because they are difficult to catch and the pursuit and capture of them causes the predator to expend too much energy. Instead, the weak, the old, the young and the inattentive are selected. Their deaths leave only the fittest animals to reproduce which strengthens the gene pool, prevents undesirable traits from being passed to future generations and ensures the continuation of positive genetic traits which add up to the survival of the fittest.

The successful hunting hawk at your feeder is also an example of the survival of the fittest. It has captured its prey, insuring its existence for another day. If the hawk continues to sustain itself through the winter while avoiding the many hazards it can fall victim to, like being shot or trapped, being hit by a car, eating poisoned food, flying into windows or being electrocuted, it too, will breed in the spring and pass on its superior genes to future generations.

The next time you stand at the window of your nice warm house with a tasty ham or roast beef sandwich in your hand watching a raptor attack the birds at your feeder, rather than maligning it, view it with compassion, and even enthusiasm. It is, after all, a fellow creature near the top of the food chain struggling against great odds to survive.