After you start offering bird feeders in your yard, sooner or later you will attract more than you’ve bargained for, whether they are wild bird predators, birds that some birders consider “pests,” or wild bird diseases. Once you invite backyard birds, you have to take responsibility for their safety.
Every year about the same time, an uninvited guest comes to our yard to dine. Though his exact arrival date cannot be foreseen, the behavior of our guest is predictable. Seemingly from nowhere, the Sharp-shinned Hawk appears, and I announce to my husband, “Old Sharpy’s back in town!” The distressed jays, cardinals and chickadees, feeding quietly only moments before, squawk and spring for cover. Then suddenly, as if a master switch is flipped, all is still — all is silent in the back yard.
“Sharpy” swoops down and lands on the same branch of the same tree as it did the year before and the year before that . It shifts from one foot to the other as it waits for a small bird to reveal its whereabouts with a nervous twitch or flutter. It doesn’t matter to the sentry how long it takes. It has nothing better to do. After all, this is the way it makes its living.
The hawk looks from side to side. With piercing red eyes, it searches the hedge below. Detecting the slightest quiver of a leaf, the hunter drops to the attack feet first, much as an Osprey splashes into a lake for a fish. In a moment, it emerges from the hedge with its prize clutched in its talons. It carries the squealing bird to the ground. With needle-sharp claws, it kneads the small body as a baker prepares dough for the oven. Slowly, life oozes from the bird. Once again, there is silence.
The hawk flies to a favorite perch to devour its feast, leaving only feathers and skull. In less than half an hour, the drama is over — over until hunger again attacks the attacker.
This scene has repeated itself many times outside my windows during the past 23 years. I can only imagine how often it occurred before I began feeding birds in my back yard. The hawk’s ancestors must have cruised this same point on the map more than a generation ago. Then, it was a sprawling woodland teeming with wildlife. Now it is a sprawling neighborhood teeming with humanlife. Large sections of the woods were taken out to make room for suburban homes, including my own.
Natural food sources for birds were replaced by birdfeeders filled with sunflower seeds and other delicacies to entice wild birds to our gardens. Now birds find my yard attractive, but they face the problem of a predator that returns each fall and haunts my feeding stations until spring.
My first encounter with the hawk happened only a short time after I began birding. At the time, I had no understanding of nature’s law. I saw only death, not the process of life and death. At first, I hated the bird of prey. However, during the long process of observing the hunter, I gained insight that I didn’t expect.
When my hawk experience began, I agreed with those ornithologists of the early 20th century who believed that all species of bird-eating hawks (Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Goshawks and American Kestrels) were destructive animals that deserved to be eliminated. One writer, R. I. Brasher, in Birds of America (1917), called them “murderous little villains” and “relentless buccaneers.”
Once I looked out the window and saw the hawk fly away with a Cedar Waxwing in its powerful grip. I threw open the back door and startled the creature. It dropped the terrified bird before there was time to squeeze out its life. The stunned bird lay on the ground for a few minutes, regained its balance and rejoined its flock in a nearby tree.
From time to time, I saw “Sharpy” consume songbirds such as American Goldfinch, Dark-eyed Junco and Northern Mockingbird. At first this troubled me, but suddenly I realized I was no longer trying to rescue the birds. For the first time, I understood the hawk’s niche in the overall scheme. This unexpected insight surprised me: A hawk’s consumption of beautiful songbirds that I love is as much a part of the balance of nature as its eating pesky House Sparrows.
Someone defined a predator as “any creature that beats you to another creature you wanted.” In one case, those wants were vastly different. I heard a ruckus in our front yard and rushed out to see an American Crow carrying off a Blue Jay nestling whose progress I’d followed since eggs appeared in the nest. My sudden presence startled the crow, and it dropped its prey, which I promptly put back in the nest with its siblings. (Don’t worry, adult birds will continue to care for their young even though human hands have touched them.)
The National Audubon Society has identified domestic and feral cats as significant contributors to the decline of songbird populations in the United States. It is estimated that there are approximately 55 million domestic cats and 45 million feral cats in the United States alone. Many of them are proficient hunters, and they kill millions of songbirds every year.
My neighbor’s beautiful white cat patrols the neighborhood like a lion on the prowl. It crouches low and creeps slowly across the yard until it reaches the hedge or the holly bush, 10 feet from my feeders. There it lurks in the shadows and waits. Silently, it pounces on an unsuspecting bird feeding on the ground and triumphantly takes home its prize. I have discovered that if I suddenly appear with the garden hose or a strong watergun at full force, the cat hightails it home.
There are a couple of things we can do about feral cats when we see them. We can call the humane society. We also can refuse to feed them. The least we can do about domestic cats is encourage our neighbors to keep them inside or put bells on their collars so the birds might have fair warning when the cats are near.
Dogs also can pose problems at feeding stations. A friend of mine who lives in a rural area says her dog often brings her a “trophy” — a cardinal, mockingbird or some other bird he has caught unawares. We need to insist that leash laws are strictly enforced, and while we’re at it, we can strongly encourage our city councils to pass leash laws for cats as well as dogs.
The three vital components of backyard bird feeding are food, water and shelter. Unfortunately, food and water attract not only desirable birds but unwanted “pests,” including House Sparrows, European Starlings, grackles and pigeons as well as bird-eating hawks. Most of these undesirable birds like cracked corn. Try placing this grain in a feeder far from your other feeders. In order to discourage hawk attacks, you might have to discontinue putting out food for a few days so the hawk will move on to better hunting grounds.
Other pests at the feeders include squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, rats, skunks, opossums and even bobcats (according to your geographical location). Not only will these mammals eat you out of house and birdseed, but some of them even eat the feeders.
I am convinced that it is almost impossible to outfox a squirrel. I have tried cone and umbrella-shaped baffles made of aluminum pie and roaster pans, grease on the pole beneath the feeders, old 78 records placed on the wire above the feeder, and placing the feeders as far away from trees as possible so the squirrels can’t jump from tree to feeder. They still find a way! I finally just gave up and decided to enjoy their clownish antics. Some people catch squirrels and other pests in humane traps, which allow the animals to be captured alive without injury and released at a distant location. However, this is hardly ever satisfactory because other animals soon move in and fill the vacuum.
Another danger you might encounter in your backyard sanctuary is the spread of disease among the birds. It is absolutely vital that you maintain clean birdfeeders. One of the common disease problems at birdfeeders results from accumulating wet grain that serves as a medium for the growth of the mold, Aspergillus fumigatus. Birds can contract aspergillus by inhaling mold and spores while eating.
If you notice lethargic or dead birds around your feeders, it’s a good idea to stop placing food there for a few days. Thoroughly clean all your feeders, rake up the debris under the feeders, and bury it before resuming. Try to find feeders that will keep the grain dry, such as hopper feeders, and clean up spilled grain before it has a chance to mold. In order to keep bird seed dry, free from mold and away from raccoons and other animals, store it in metal garbage cans with tight-fitting lids, preferrably inside.
Picture windows and Plexiglas storm doors can mean suicide for birds that see the reflection of trees and sky and attempt to “fly through.” Some homeowners place hawk or owl silhouettes on these surfaces in an attempt to scare off the birds. Others place strips of cloth across the windows to break up the reflection. If a bird is stunned by flying into a window, put it in a box with a lid or a grocery sack. Place it in a safe place out of the reach of cats, dogs and children. When you hear the bird moving around, take it outside and release it near cover. If you find a dead bird, put it in a resealable bag. Label the bag with the date, location and apparent cause of death. Freeze the bird, and call a local museum or university to see if they can use the specimen as a study skin. Remember it is illegal to keep birds (with the exception of introduced birds: European Starlings, House Sparrows and domestic pigeons), alive or dead, their feathers, parts, nests or eggs without state/provincial and federal permits.
Offer Only Preferred Foods
Offer only the foods you know birds like. Some of the mixes you buy at grocery stores contain grains that birds simply do not like. They kick aside the less desirable seeds, which soon rot on the ground. I have found the formula of black-oil sunflower seed, white proso millet, peanuts and cracked corn works year-round. I serve each of these in a different feeder. During winter across much of the United States, thistle or nyjer is a magnet for American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins. In far northern parts of the country, this magical seed draws redpolls.
Perhaps our guiding philosophy should be “If we put it out, they will come,” but we need to protect the birds from as many backyard dangers as we humanly can.
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