Managing Birds of Prey at Your Feeders

birds of prey

One spring morning a few decades ago, I heard horrific screams and ran out to see a Cooper’s hawk tear up a still-living robin on my neighbor’s back lawn. The robin was howling and its mate, facing the hawk from less than a meter away, screamed even louder until the hawk finally flew away with its meal.

So many years later, I still feel visceral pain remembering that robin, which wasn’t a generic bird – it was My robin. For a few consecutive years, from the day he arrived in March until mid-July, he sang from the top of the spire of my tall spruce tree. The dry spring that year delayed nest building. (Robins need wet mud to build their nests.) Thanks to the rain the day before, the nest, right next to the house, was suddenly half built, and now the male was dead.

I thought the female would move on, but the next morning there she was, a new mate bringing her nest materials. He never sang from my spruce, and I didn’t have the same affection for him, but the pair had two batches of youngsters that year.

At the time, I was a raptor counter at the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, less than a mile from my home, where we counted thousands of hawks passing by each fall. I’ve often seen kestrels tearing dragonflies out of the air, merlins tearing apart swirling flocks of waxwings, or an accipiter tearing apart a loose flock of jays, which made me realize just how lifeless predators is difficult. Darner’s green dragonflies are abundant during the kestrel migration, but smaller hawks have often found themselves empty, and hawks aiming for birds have had even better luck. In Duluth, Cooper’s hawks are rarer than goshawks, so when I saw one on the ridge I was always thrilled, never thinking of my poor robin.

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Most of us human omnivores eat meat, but even avid hunters get the majority of their protein from the grocery store rather than kill it ourselves. A species that produces helpless babies must have a deep-rooted impulse to protect little beings. When we invite small birds to our feeders, we feel a similar instinct, and perhaps a moral imperative, to protect them.

When a pair of Merlins nested on my street, one would often come down the block, drooping low, its wings barely clearing the sidewalk as it passed my house, remaining completely out of sight of the feeder birds until ready. where she bowed and cleared the corner hedge. Despite this well-executed maneuver, he usually arrived empty, but after watching him catch a siskin and then a junco, I closed my feeders for the duration. I put suet and seeds to attract birds, not to attract birds that might eat those birds. Even without feeders, songbirds and birds of prey do just fine.

I loved having gorgeous little falcons in my neighborhood and was elated when I saw two adorable baby birds, proof of their parents’ hunting success. There is a real inconsistency here, but I can’t help it. I am only human.

This article originally appeared in the “Attracting Birds” section of the March/April 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

In our galleries: See photos of Merlin and Cooper’s Hawk