Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Hawks on the move

With migration well underway, sharp-shinned hawks are looking for a meal

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 9/25/19

It’s been busy at our bird feeders in recent days. The blue jays are scarfing down the sunflower seeds and cracked corn to fill their various caches ahead of the coming winter. The white-throated …

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Hawks on the move

With migration well underway, sharp-shinned hawks are looking for a meal

Posted

It’s been busy at our bird feeders in recent days. The blue jays are scarfing down the sunflower seeds and cracked corn to fill their various caches ahead of the coming winter. The white-throated sparrows are fattening up for the migration ahead. And the chickadees are adjusting to the longer nights and cooler temperatures, which prompts them to feed more just to maintain their body temperature.

So, when the birds all suddenly vanished in a rush the other morning, I knew something was up. It’s migration season for most birds, and that includes the birds of prey. In this case, it was an immature sharp-shinned hawk, who swooped down just over the tops of the feeders, that sent the other birds scattering. Sharp-shinned hawks feed predominantly on other birds. In fact, songbirds make up about 90 percent of their diet and it has to be a challenging way to make a living, especially as bird populations have declined across North America. The immature hawks are just barely getting the hang of it, and this one appeared to come up empty-handed. While wild birds can become used to our activity when they’re around the feeders, they are endlessly alert to predators, especially those that come from above. It’s always amazing to watch a feeder full of noisy birds instantly vanish into the brush whenever a hawk drops out of the sky. While you might expect that most birds will attempt to fly away, in fact, many of them prefer to hide, often under logs or rocks. Hawks are far more powerful flyers than chickadees or sparrows, so for these small birds, hunkering down is usually the best defense.

Hawks know this and will sometimes hunt on the ground after the birds have scattered, slowly working across the forest floor, like a deadly version of hide and seek. I’ve watched them do this before and when you watch them it’s easy to recognize the velociraptor, among the deadliest of dinosaurs, that still exists deep in their DNA.

The immature sharp-shinned is easy to distinguish from adults because of the brown back, brown-streaked head, chest, and belly, as well as its yellowish eyes. The adult of the species sports a blue-gray cap and back, very fine rusty streaking on the front neck and chest, and red eyes.

Sharpies are small, long-tailed hawks, the smallest of the genus Accipiter, which is characterized by fast and agile hawks found mostly in forests. Here in the North Country, the accipiters include the sharp-shinned, which is the smallest of the group, followed by the somewhat larger Cooper’s hawk, and finally by the much larger and more powerful goshawk. Most of our other common hawks, like broad-winged and red-tailed hawks, are members of the genus Buteo, which typically have broader bodies and wings, and shorter tails.

Sharp-shinned hawks breed in northeastern Minnesota and points north, nearly to Hudson Bay. They winter as far north as southern Minnesota, although the sharpies moving through our area right now are probably headed further south than that. They’ll be following the waves of migrating snowbirds as they go, picking off the occasional meal along the way.

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