When Hawks Visit Feeders

Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Birds of prey are absolutely magnificent creatures to behold, and when one visits your backyard it definitely calls for some excitement. While a close-up view of these remarkable avian hunters is nice at first, seeing your feeder birds disappear or become an afternoon snack is less than ideal. Luckily, there are ways to help protect our backyard regulars from these cunning predators. 

Immature Cooper's Hawk feeding on a pigeon in a backyard

Why do birds of prey visit backyards?
While much of a hawk's diet is made up of rodents & small mammals, birds of prey are also birds of opportunity and will feed on a variety of prey items including frogs, snakes, insects, and songbirds. So as we're providing backyard birds with easy access to food, we're also provided birds of prey with easy access to food - creating a drive-thru or in this case, fly-thru restaurant. Birds of prey are highly intelligent and adaptable, and quickly come to recognize backyard feeding stations as spots for a quick and easy meal. Birds typically preyed upon by birds of prey at feeders are doves, pigeons, and starlings, due to their abundance and ground feeding habits which make them easier targets to pounce on from above. In addition to songbirds, hawks may also be on the lookout for small mammals such as mice, squirrels, or rabbits who are feeding on seed around feeding stations. 

What species am I most likely to see in my yard?
We're lucky to have a wide variety of both migratory and non-migratory bird of prey species here in Ontario, but there are definitely some that you're more likely to see in your backyard than others. For example, it's entirely possible to see a Snowy Owl sitting on your garage in search of prey, but not very likely due to the fact that Snowy Owls are used to hunting for their food on the Arctic tundra where human interference is minimal. Some species you are more apt to see hanging out in your backyard include Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Merlins, Barred Owls, and occasionally Screech Owls, American Kestrels, or Northern Shrikes. These species are more abundant in areas where there is heavy human presence, and take advantage of the plethora of prey available in urban settings. Interestingly, data from Project FeederWatch found a significant increase in Cooper's Hawks in backyards from 1989 at just 6.4%, to 2014 where they were reported in 21.9% of participants' backyards. It is believed that the increase is in part due to the ban on DDT that was implemented in 1972, which caused a rebound in hawk species, and also due to the increase in popularity of bird feeding which attracted Coopers Hawks' and Sharp-shinned Hawks' preferred foods - birds, chipmunks, and mice. 

Merlin dustbathing in a driveway near a feeding station

How can I help protect my feeder birds?
We know that birds of prey need to eat as well, that's nature. But it's completely understandable that you may not want to knowingly lure birds in to become someone's next meal. Here are some ways you can help protect birds at your feeders from birds of prey:

  • Provide shelter & shield feeders: Creating cover for birds to seek shelter under is the best way to help protect birds in your yard. This can be done by planting native trees & shrubs near your feeding stations, or by building up brush piles with twigs and branches for the birds to dive and hide under when predators are near. Shielding feeders under covered areas such as awnings, under lower tree branches, or under purpose-built canopies are other effective options for deterring birds of prey. 

  • Avoid ground feeding: As mentioned above, birds of prey most often go after the easy target birds who feed on the ground. To help minimize attacks on vulnerable birds, avoid ground feeding as much as possible. Offering seed blends such as WBU No-Mess Blends, and adding Catch-a-Seed Trays and other seed catchers beneath your feeders can help limit the amount of seed falling beneath your feeders. Also be sure to clean around the base of feeding stations often with a rake or stiff broom, this is not only helpful to deter birds from feeding on the ground, but also helps limit bacteria and mold growth around your feeders. 

  • Remove feeders: If worse comes to worst, removing feeders for a few days often does the trick. When the source of food leaves, so will the hawk. If you have a particularly persistent bird of prey in your area then it may take longer than a few days, but generally they move on to new hunting grounds quite quickly when they realize the easy meals aren't there anymore. 

  • Prevent window collisions: This won't stop birds of prey from visiting your yard, but it will protect the birds fleeing from them. When a bird of prey flies over or near a feeding station, the birds at the station will scatter in all directions to escape, sometimes mistaking windows for getaway passages. You can help prevent these collisions from occurring by installing window deterrent markers such as Feather Friendly Window Markers or Window Alert Decals, and also by ensuring your feeders are 3 or less feet OR 25 or more feet away from windows. Click here to learn more about preventing window collisions. 

Of course, there is always the option of allowing nature to take its course. Hawks face numerous obstacles, and allowing them to get away with an easy meal could mean life or death for them that particular day. Viewing predator-prey interaction is behaviour that is uncommonly witnessed, so being able to watch it unfold in your own backyard would be a pretty noteworthy experience. However you choose to deal with a bird of prey in your yard, be sure to take some time to appreciate the resourcefulness, intelligence, and beauty of these skilled predators. For more information on hawks in your yard, visit our Problem Solving page. 

Happy trails!
- Shayna

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