Yesterday I noticed a circular pile of red feathers in my yard near my birdfeeders. It’s a sure indication that the predatory sharp-shinned hawk that patrols the neighborhood had taken a cardinal for a meal. That small hawk is well-equipped to swoop in and take a songbird in flight. The birds at the feeders know to quickly head for cover when they spot the hawk, but sometimes not all of them will escape his talons. At times I’ve seen the hawk on the ground with a fresh kill, pulling at it until he is standing in the middle of a ring of feathers. If disturbed, he’ll usually grab the carcass and fly off to perch on a tree branch to continue his feast.
As the Department’s ombudsman, I’ve been the recipient of a number of complaints about hawks taking birds from feeders and requests from homeowners for techniques to stop this natural drama. It puts me in an awkward position because I don’t think there is any reason a person should want to stop it. Just as songbirds eat seeds, sharp-shinned hawks eat smaller birds. I don’t think that there is any reason we should wish to interrupt that natural food chain that has been in place for millennia. As is typical, the number of individuals of the prey species is much greater than the number of their predators. Isn’t it a fair trade to lose a songbird every now and then in order to keep the small hawks fed?
In the past, there were many rural folks who would shoot any hawk on sight to protect their farmyard poultry. It's harder to appreciate the concept of a food chain when your breakfast eggs and Sunday dinners are a diminishing link in that chain. Almost all non-game birds are protected now, however, with state and federal laws prohibiting any shooting or trapping of hawks and other migratory species.
I still have plenty of cardinals to enjoy at my feeders and I'll enjoy the sharp-shinned hawk too. But I do wish I could train him to specialize in house sparrows and European starlings.