Every winter it seems to happen the same way. As there is less and less natural food around or if the food that is around is buried under snow drifts, we get more and more birds at our backyard feeder. Especially house sparrows. I remember once estimating that there were approximately 150 house sparrows chirping wildly in our bushes.
Then, apparently for no reason, the house sparrow numbers start thinning out and those that remain appear to be looking over their feathered shoulders at every moment. Next, when I go out to add feed to the feeder, I start seeing little circles of feathers in the snow, sometimes accompanied by a little reddening of the nearby snow.
It has happened. A Cooper’s hawk has added us to his itinerary of spots to visit regularly. Cooper’s hawks, along with the related Sharp-shinned hawk and the Goshawk, are members of the Accipiter family. These are the birds who dine principally from the capture of other birds.
Accipiters are slender with short, broad, rounded wings and a long tail which helps them maneuver in flight. They are equipped with long, sharp talons used to kill their prey, and a sharp, hooked bill used in feeding.
Over many winters, I have observed several hunting strategies. One is to find a spot nestled in the shrubbery near the feeder and remain motionless. Eventually a few unsuspecting birds will come near and perch near the feeder, completely unaware of the terror they may soon face. At high speed the hawk will emerge and easily find one unprepared bird for a meal.
Another technique is to race through the gap between our house and our neighbour’s house at such a high rate of speed that birds at the feeder have no hope of evasion.
It was a final strategy we observed that is still talked about in our home. A Cooper’s Hawk flew amazingly quickly from the back garden towards our windows forcing one sparrow to flee and meet the window pane at great speed. Within a second, the hawk had picked up the little, lifeless body and perched on the porch railing just a meter from the window where I stood. I watched every detail as the sparrow was stripped of its feathers revealing delicate and, no doubt, tasty to a Cooper’s hawk, red meat. I called a few family members from upstairs to witness this rare sight but as soon as they saw what was going on, a hurried retreat was undertaken.