'Tis the season. Yes, Christmas season is here. But the season I refer to today is the bird hawk season. I have had several emails recently from friends letting me know that the Cooper's hawks are spending time near their bird feeders. Some (most) have been quite upset about the fact that they are back. So for them, 'tis the season to be jolly is not appropriate. One fella, however, let me know that he enjoyed seeing the bird outside the window. Not because he likes to see the songbirds utilizing his feeders disappear, but he understands the complex system of nature and that these birds must eat, too.
Yes, the birds are nervous at many feeders right now. They make mad dashes for the cover of nearby trees and a brush piles every minute or two. And they have good reason to be nervous. When Cooper's hawks are making the rounds of area bird feeders, they are not looking for sunflower seed.
Cooper's hawks are crow-sized predators that are fairly common nesters in central Iowa woodlands again after being quite rare for more than 50 years. These middle sized members of the bird hawk group are called accipiters. Birds are their favored prey.
Unlike the larger soaring hawks like red tails, accipiters tend to hunt by perching quietly in ambush and then overtaking their prey with an explosive burst of speed. They are aggressive hunters that will often pursue their prey right into thickets and brush piles.
In addition to watching for Cooper's, these backyard birds might also be nervous because there are still a few migrating sharp shinned hawks in the area, too. Very similar in plumage to their larger cousins the Cooper's, these blue jay sized sharpies hunt in much the same way as Cooper's hawks. But a big difference is that they must keep a sharp lookout for their larger cousins who would make a meal of them, too.
And while we are talking about accipiters, we much less often see the largest member of the accipiter clan, the northern goshawk. These powerful hunters seldom come this far south even in winter, and when they do, they prefer larger prey like grouse or rabbits.
All accipiters are built for rapid bursts of flight and dodging through obstacles like trees. Their wings are relatively short for hawks and are wide and rounded. They have long tails to aid in maneuvering. They are capable of soaring, but tend to do so only during migration. While they may cover large areas as they hunt for food, they may hunt near your feeder for a few hours or then again might camp out there for several days.
And as these songbirds have to contend with short days, this means that some will need to be feeding before sunrise and after sunset in order to pack in enough energy to fuel them through another long, cold night. Cardinals and dark eyed juncos often do this. In doing so, they expose themselves to yet another group of raptors, the owls.
People who feed birds, prize their regular visitors to the feeders and generally don't like the thought of having them picked off by a passing raptor. But it is a thrill when you get the opportunity to watch one of those winged hunters attack, though!