Hawks  - Love ‘em or hate ‘em

Many backyard bird feeding enthusiasts have a true love/hate relationship with hawks.

When a hawk has been at work at your backyard feeders, the cycle of life can become just a bit too personal. However, seeing a Sharp-shinned Hawk blasting through the backyard in search of prey can provide a moment of exhilaration.

This cycle of life drama is natural and occurs whether or not you feed the birds.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk and its slightly larger twin, the Cooper’s Hawk, must catch and eat at least one item of prey every day to survive. They do not kill more birds than needed to survive. They are successful in catching their prey about a third of the time.

Sharp-shinned Hawks prey almost exclusively on other birds; Cooper’s Hawks will eat other birds and occasionally a few small mammals, too. Something to consider is that quite possibly, the birds a hawk takes are old, weak or sick and removing them from the flock may help strengthen the remaining birds.

Cooper’s HawkCooper's Hawk

  • Cooper’s Hawks’ short, powerful wings and long tail help them rapidly twist and turn in flight while chasing prey in dense woodland habitats. Even with this incredible agility, these hawks face plenty of danger while in a frenzied pursuit for a meal. A recent study showed that 23% of the examined Cooper’s Hawks had healed fractures in the bones of their chest. These fractures were likely the result of collisions with trees.
  • Female Cooper’s Hawks are about 30% larger than their male counterparts.
  • Cooper’s Hawks have short, powerful wings and a long tail; these adaptations give them the ability to be highly maneuverable in dense forest habitats. But even with their incredible agility, a recent study showed that 23% of all of the Cooper’s Hawks examined had healed fractures in the bones of their chest.
  • While Cooper’s Hawks will prey on a wide variety of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, some of their most common quarry include Mourning Doves, American Robins, Jays, Northern Flicker, European Starling and chipmunks.
  • One study in New York documented that each Cooper’s Hawk nestling consumed 11 items of prey per week.
  • Cooper’s Hawks have been known to cache uneaten prey in trees for later use.

Sharp-shinned HawkSharp-shinned Hawk

  • Sharp-shinned Hawks have especially long middle toes and large eyes, these adaptations help them to capture the small, agile birds that make up almost their entire diet.
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk females are on average 43% larger than their male counterparts. This size difference between the two sexes is the largest of all of North American raptors.
  • The name “sharp-shinned” comes from the long and narrow appearance of the hawk’s leg just above its toes.
  • While gliding, a Sharp-shinned Hawk can be distinguished from a Cooper’s Hawk by a noticeably shorter head in relationship to leading edge of its wings and the squared off appearance of its tail.
  • On October 4, 1977, over 11,000 Sharp-shinned Hawks were counted migrating past Cape May Point, New Jersey.
  • Project Feeder Watch studies show that up to a third of all predation deaths at feeders are caused by Sharp-shinned Hawks.


To Foil the Hawk’s Attempts at Catching your Backyard Birds

Provide shelter in the form of natural cover, like dense trees, shrubs and brush piles. Birds will take cover if they feel threatened. If the hawk is persistent consider taking down your feeders for a few days. The hawk should go elsewhere in search of food and will hopefully find a new location for hunting. However, if the same hawk or a different one returns to your yard, you will need to repeat the process. Your songbirds will leave while the feeders are down, but they will return once the feeders are re-hung.

It can be frustrating to contend with aggressive birds of prey, but under no circumstances should any one ever try to shoot, trap, poison or otherwise harm birds of prey, which are protected by federal and state laws.

Other Interesting Facts About Hawks

  • The name hawk derives from the Teutonic root hab, meaning “to seize or take hold.” The family name Accipitridae is from the Latin word accipere, meaning, “to take or seize.” Both refer to the strong grasping ability these birds of prey share.
  • Songbirds and hummingbirds aren't the only birds that migrate. In the fall, there is a huge migration of raptors, too!  Raptor migration is one of the most thrilling birding events to observe. Large groups or “kettles” of raptors may contain up to 1,000 birds.
    Flocks of hawks soaring on thermals look like steam rising from a “kettle,” hence the name.
  • Hawks don't flap their wings much in migration like songbirds. Instead, they rely on rising currents of air and simply glide and soar their way south. Because of this, they’re quite dependent on the weather to travel and need the sun to warm the air.
  • Hawks migrate during daylight hours, traveling at speeds up to 45 mph.
    Migrating raptors include eagles, falcons and ospreys, Red-tailed, Broad-winged, Rough-legged, Swainson’s, Sharp-shinned and Red-shouldered Hawks, Goshawks, Merlins, Turkey Vultures, and Northern Harriers.
  • Accipiters, like the Cooper’s Hawk, have short wings and long tails that aid them in the twisting and rapid turning flight needed to chase down their prey in dense woodland and scrub habitats.
  • Great places to watch migrating raptors include the following:
    - Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania: World’s first refuge for birds of Prey. Located at Kittatinny Ridge in Kempton, Pennsylvania. 
    - Cape May Point State Park, New Jersey: Staffed September through November. One of the best places to observe migrating Sharp-shinned Hawks. 
    - Kiptopeke State Park, Virginia: Fall migration here provides big thrills with over 70,000 raptors passing through. Near Cape Charles. 
    - Hawk Watch International Fall Migration Site, New Mexico: In the Manzano Mountains near Albuquerque, observe as many as eleven species of raptors migrating in the fall.
  • The following are longevity records for some banded hawks in the wild:
    - Red-tailed Hawk over 28 years
    - Broad-winged Hawk over 16 years
    - Red-shouldered Hawk over 19 years
    - Swainson’s Hawk over 19 years
    - Rough-legged Hawk over 17 years
    - Sharp-shinned Hawk over 19 years
    - Cooper’s Hawk over 20 years