Sharp-shinned Hawk

moon phase Week of 10/26/2003 Favorable days for planting

Last week's weather was a treat, with temperatures in the 70s during the day and mid-40s at night. This, no doubt, was our "Indian Summer." Cooler temps moved in Monday, bringing a light rain and some wind. That combination brought many of the colorful leaves down.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Tuesday morning there was a thick, wet frost over everything. It was light - not the kind of frost that clings to your windshield so hard that you almost break the scraper getting it off. As soon as the morning sun touched it, it was gone.

The cold night had made the birds hungry, so they eagerly waited for me to spread cracked corn and sunflower seeds on the platform feeder. Moments after I did so, there were chickadees, nuthatches, finches, cardinals, ten bluejays and a red-belled woodpecker all jockeying for a place at the feeder.

As I stepped up on the porch, I heard alarm calls from all the birds. When I turned to look, a small brown sharp-shinned hawk went zooming right by me. He made a dash for the birdfeeder, and all the birds dove for cover. The young hawk had nothing left to chase but the blue jays. He wasted no time in taking on a jay that was the same size as himself. He tail-chased the bluejay around and in and out of the nearby trees and bushes. At last, using the thick cover to his advantage, the jay was able to dodge his pursuer. Having been outmaneuvered the sharpie gave up and landed on top of a clothesline pole, while the ten bluejays went back to business at the bird feeder. I thought it was odd that they didn't seem to care that the hawk was still there.

I ducked into the house to get a better look out the window. My binoculars afforded me a better look at the young hawk's striking plumage. The sun caught his spotted breast and bright yellow eye as he nervously glanced from side to side. Suddenly, he took off after another bluejay. After missing this one, he lit on the porch rail.

Forty feet away, the jays were back at the feeder. Again the small, courageous hawk made an attempt on his blue breakfast; again he chased a jay around the bushes and small trees, until again he failed to reach his objective. This time he came to rest on the edge of the bird feeder. To my surprise, three fearless bluejays landed on the feeder and began picking up sunflower seeds, just two feet away from him. Even though the hawk makes his living catching birds, the jays showed no fear. They knew that if they stayed near cover, they could easily evade the young hawk, who has yet to sharpen his hunting skills. The sharpie hadn't learned that yet, so he took off after yet another jay.

I watched the hawk chase blue jays for 35 minutes before he gave up and flew through the woods to find something he could actually catch. I wished him well, hoping he would learn quickly the lessons that will help him make it through the winter. As soon as he was gone, all the other birds came out of hiding and rejoined the jays at the feeder.

Late that afternoon, the birds once again sounded their alarm calls and dashed for cover. It was too late for one small junco, who was snapped up by another sharp-shinned hawk. This sharpie had the plumage and hunting skills of an adult. He knew how to ambush a flock of small birds and how to pick out the one that was catchable.

Sharp-shinned hawks, or sharpies, are members of the family of hawks known as accipiters. These include the larger Coopers hawks and the larger-still goshawks. Accipiters are often called blue darters because of the adults' blue-gray plumage. All accipiters have short, powerful wings and long tails which give them the maneuverability and speed to catch birds. The sharp-shinned hawks that I see here in the fall are migratory, just passing through on their journeys south.

This is the best time of year to watch hawks and eagles, as they make their way south on migration. Often other birds in the area will call out when a hawk is near, so keep your ears open as well as your eyes!

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