Acrobatic Accipiters

Cephas, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Our bird feeders, caged to deter squirrels and greedy grackles, attract mostly finches and chickadees, both nuthatches of northeastern North America, and the occasional downy woodpecker, all small enough to slip between the crossbars of the cage.  The eat an expensive diet of hulled sunflower seeds, and so there are frequently no empty perches. The feeders are also on the hunting route of an accipiter. From it size and tail and the flatness of its head, I’d say it’s a Cooper’s Hawk, the medium-sized accipiter of North America.

Accipiters are wily hunters. They learned early in their interaction with settlers and their chickens to use buildings to spring surprise attacks on the free-ranging flocks, whipping around corners to pick off young birds and earning them the sobriquet ‘chicken hawk’. We saw this behaviour at our previous house, where the hawk would use the space between our house and the neighbours as a hidden route to the feeders, taking—at speed—a too-late-startled cardinal off the tray feeder before the bird had a chance to do more than launch itself into the air.

At this house, the first accipiter to find our feeders used a simple but crafty technique: swoop in and scatter the finches. One, panicked, would almost always hit the window or the patio doors. The hawk just picked the stunned bird out of the air as it fell, returning to the nearest tree to pluck it.

I’m not sure how often the hawk hunts at our feeders: I’m not in the living room that often during daylight hours. I wander into the kitchen to make coffee or tea, or empty the dishwasher, little movement breaks from my desk, and I’ll see the hawk once or twice most days. Most of the time it is unsuccessful in its attack, but every so often it takes a finch. I think we’re just one fly-through lane on its daily patrol of the neighbourhood feeders, a place for a quick snack to energize it before it goes after a larger meal of mourning dove somewhere else.

But how it gets that quick snack is something new to me. The caged feeder hangs from a tall pole. The hawk flies in low, turns upside down, and hooks its talons onto the bottom of the cage. Then it reaches in with one foot and pulls a goldfinch off its perch. It reminds me of the hunting technique of the gymnogene, or African harrier-hawk, which pulls nestlings and eggs from cavity nests with its talons.  Somehow, this particular southern Ontario Cooper’s Hawk has learned this is a successful technique.

I haven’t read or heard of other accipters doing this, but surely ‘our’ hawk isn’t unique?

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