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Eating away the winter blahs

How the birds do it



As winter recedes, and birds return for springtime, it is a good time to give consideration to a group of birds that thrives during the cold months, but welcomes back the other birds of spring: the accipiters, otherwise known as "bird hawks." Their downy under-feathers keep them warm, and small birds that flock together in winter— for protection, food and warmth—are their principle prey. There is nothing that makes the day brighter for an accipiter than a flock of small birds.

From what I have witnessed in my bird feeder in winter, it goes something like this: A flock of finches, sparrows, doves, quail, grosbeaks, pine sisikins or other songbirds come to the feeder for the much-needed handout. Not too far away, a hungry sharp-shinned hawk is perched unnoticed in a bushy pine, juniper or sagebrush.

The hawk waits for the birds to settle down and begin eating, then it picks out the one it wants—how they do that is way beyond my understanding, they apparently just do it. The idea is to catch and eat the easiest prey, that way minimum energy is used to catch food that will provide maximum energy to get the hawk through winter to reproduce its kind.

Once the prey is selected, the hawk pushes off with those powerful, blunt wings and heads right for the feeder. The profile of a bird hawk coming at you is almost unnoticeable at a distance, but birds being birds are always watching for the inevitability of something after them.

Before the hawk gets into striking range one bird will see it coming and, as it is with group behavior, when one bird leaps off the feeder, they all do. At that moment the hawk—with just a twitch of its long tail—aims right at the bird it wants. That bird panics and goes for the first way out to get away from the threatening hawk—usually a window reflection.

If the hawk is experienced, and has pulled this off a few times previously (like the one at my place), it will slow down and give the startled bird the opportunity to strike the window. Whack! The prey is usually knocked silly and falls to the ground. Blam! The hawk is on it, and within seconds it is flying off to a convenient perch to pluck and eat the still-warm victim.

The sharpie that uses the birds that come to my feeder for its winter food has the routine down pat. It actually zooms up and away when the bird hits the window and then comes back like an F-16 on military power and oftentimes snatches it before it hits the ground.

If the window strike doesn't work, and the prey dives into a bush for safety, the hawk will usually follow—something the targeted bird does not expect. The hawk merely folds its blunt wings in slightly and then uses that long tail to steer, and goes flashing into a current or rabbitbrush after a junco—and it works almost 100 percent of the time.

Please don't hate hawks because they are getting "your" birds. There is no "good" or "bad," or "right" or "wrong" in nature; it just "is." Bluebirds feed "cute" butterfly babies to their "cute" babies in spring. The "primary consumer"—in this case the accipiter—is on the top of the food chain and thereby keeps the flow and balance of energy in nature going smoothly. Don't forget, like hawks, many of we humans also eat and enjoy meat, and without these checks and balances, neither system would not operate correctly.

Whoops, one more comment regarding winter birds—I'd better not pass up the pugnacious little Northern Pygmy Owl! That little guy, for its size, is one of the most deadly and ambitious raptors around, perhaps even more audacious than the accipiters. It will take on just about anything its size, and sometimes mammals larger than it is.

Watch for them perched on the very tops of juniper or pine trees in winter; they look like a robin without a tail. Don't be surprised if, while looking at the tiny owl though your binocs, you suddenly see it still looking at you when it turns its head. Like most moms, they have "eyes on the back of their head," which are actually eye patterns of head feathers.

If you have an accipiter or Pygmy Owl using your feeder, consider yourself lucky. You're one of the fortunate few who have the opportunity to see some of the intricacies of nature and how complex they can be—and you may come to realize it doesn't happen by "accident." Nature has its own operating system that has been working without our help for a long, long time, but because of our interference at times, it isn't as infallible as it once was. However, that said, the one constant in nature is change.

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