Hawks & Flocks: Predators at Bird Feeders

Last Updated on November 15, 2020 by Nancie

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk Eating a House Finch
Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk Eating a House Finch

Sooner or later you will probably see a hawk at your bird feeders. When a hawk hunts at feeders, feeder birds will react. And maybe you will react too! What will birds do? What will you do?

Cooper's Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk

Common Backyard Hawks

In my part of the world, two types of hawks tend to hunt at feeders: Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-Shinned Hawks. In my particular yard, we mostly see Coopers and only an occasional Sharpie. One year a much larger Red-Shouldered Hawk hunted in our yard. Other hawks in my area tend to hunt in more open environments like fields, open marshes and road-sides.

Here are some links to Cornell’s All About Birds species pages if you need some help identifying the hawk hunting at your feeders:

Cooper’s Hawk

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Also see my “A Cooper’s Hawk at Feeders” and “Backyard Birds That Eat Other Birds” posts.

Empty Feeders Can Mean Hawks Are Around
(Almost) Empty Feeders

How Do You Know a Hawk is Hunting at Your Feeders?

Unless you are watching constantly during daylight hours, you will likely not see every time a hawk hunts your feeders. So how do you know a hawk is around?

Quiet Feeders

I have a lot of feeders in my yard and they are mostly pretty busy places. But when I look outside and don’t see a single bird for long stretches of time or if the only birds at the feeders are sitting very, very still and not eating, I know that it is likely that a hawk is around. (Individual birds at feeders tend to react to hawks in one of two ways: flee or freeze in place.)

Birds can be spooked in mass from feeders by a loud noise or a person walking through the area. But when a hawk is around, the quiet drags on as birds hide and wait for the hawk to leave. Sometimes the hawk will sit in a nearby tree with her back turned to the feeders for hours. Typically the hawk will move on after awhile and birds return to feeders. But she often will circle back to the yard later and it gets quiet yet again.

Hawks tend to concentrate on my yard for a week or two before moving on to other hunting grounds. Every once in awhile, two Coopers will hunt the yard at once (which seems totally unfair!) Then the yard will get very, very quiet for a few days or longer until the hawks move on. Sometimes it seems to be a mated pair, but other times it will be two juveniles hunting together.

Blue Jay
Blue Jay

Blue Jays Yelling

Family groups of Blue Jays are the feathered cops of my neighborhood. They take it upon themselves to not only keep watch, but to yell, surround and harass a hawk that shows up. Other birds will mob and scold hawks too, even tiny birds like Carolina Chickadees or Tufted Titmouses. But smaller more agile and maneuverable hawks like Coopers and Sharpies are probably more dangerous to mob than larger hawks. So these smaller birds mostly scold when smaller hawks are around. It is the very loud jays yelling as a group that can alert you even if you are inside.

Sometimes if you wander over to the area where the jays are loudly fussing and check the trees carefully, you’ll spot the hawk. Other times you won’t. (They can sometimes be surprisingly hard to spot, depending on how they are positioned among the branches and leaves.) Our yard and surrounding yards have many tall mature trees. The hawks typically perch about half way up.

Keep in mind though that jays will also mob crows. When searching a tree for a hawk, keep an eye out for a crow as well. And jays yell for other reasons too, like for example, that peanuts have been put in the feeder! But pay attention. After awhile you’ll come to recognize when jays are yelling about a predator and when they are alerting their buddies to food.

Note: Here are a couple interesting articles about mobbing behaviors: Why Do Little Birds Mob Big Birds and Mobbing: What It Is and Why Do Mobbed Birds Put Up With It.

An Eruption of Birds Fleeing

When feeders are busy but then there is a sudden eruption of birds frantically flying away, that can signal a hawk attack. You may see a hawk flying among and after the birds. While they may single out one bird to follow, they can and do switch birds if the first gets away.

Even if a hawk is not immediately attacking, sometimes you’ll see all the birds flee at once. The hawk may still be sitting in a tree and the birds are just reacting to its presence. Birds always seem to be on guard and watching, ready to flee, but if they know a hawk is around, their response is often even more hair trigger. If one bird in the flock panics, others likely will too, even if it turns out there wasn’t actually a hawk attacking.

Zen Window Curtains
Zen Window Curtains

Birds Hitting Windows

You may be alerted to a hawk attack by the sickening sound of a bird hitting a window. When birds get panicked, the reflection of trees and sky in window glass can confuse them as they look for a way to escape. And if there is no other way to go, they are bound to hit something.

Keep in mind that sometimes it is the bird being chased that hits the window and sometimes it is the hawk that hits. High speed aerial chases with tight maneuvering makes for a risky life for a backyard hawk.

Note: I have noticed in my own yard, that birds new to the yard will sometimes hit a window even without a hawk scare. I think the regulars figure the windows out to some extent and stay clear of them most of the time. Windows can especially confuse new-to-the-yard or young birds even if a hawk is not around. (See my post on Reducing Bird Strikes if you are looking for an effective way to greatly reduce bird window strikes.)

Mourning Dove Feathers in the Snow Suggest a Hawk Visit
Mourning Dove Feathers in the Snow Suggest a Hawk Visit

Piles of Feathers

Other times, you won’t see or hear the hawk attack because you are inside or away. You’ll be able to tell that it happened though if you find a pile of feathers on the ground. Hawks will sometimes sit on the ground and pluck their meal right there. Other times they take the bird to a tree to pluck them, with feathers falling down to the ground from there.

Mourning Doves on Feeders are Favorites of Cooper's hawks
Mourning Doves on Feeders

Which Birds Do Hawks Attack at Feeders?

Hawks will go after all kinds of feeder birds, but I do think they have preferences. For example, I’ve never seen a hawk go after a tiny hummingbird. Even if the hawk could catch such a fast little bird, they wouldn’t get much of a meal out of it.

In my yard, Cooper’s Hawks prefer big, plump, slow Mourning Doves. I’d say that three-quarters of the feather piles I’ve found over the years were dove feathers. Mourning Doves are flock birds too, which means that if the hawk misses one bird, there is probably another it could switch to target. Other flock birds like American Goldfinches and House Finches also seem to be common targets in my yard, but birds like cardinals and blue jays, etc. that visit feeders singly or in family groups can also be taken.

Keep in mind that individual hawks can differ in size. Cooper’s Hawks are very roughly the size of a crow while Sharpies are often compared to a Blue Jay in size. But a female Cooper’s Hawk is about a third larger than a male Cooper’s Hark. Sharp-Shinned Hawks are smaller in general than Coopers but a female Sharpie can come close in size to a small male Coopers. Because the male Sharpie is much smaller than the female, he is going to be the smallest of the four. (Female Coopers > Male Coopers > Female Sharpie > Male Sharpie.)

These size differences can influence which birds an individual hawk goes after. While the relatively large female Coopers love the big Mourning Doves and medium-sized birds like cardinals, the smaller Sharpies are more likely to go after smaller song birds like finches and sparrows and chickadees etc. If you get a Red-Shouldered Hawk in your yard like I did, pretty much any bird is fair game as well as the squirrel population.

Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse

Flocks Move Out Together

One interesting thing about flock species at feeders is that they tend to react as a group to an on-going threat. So if a hawk is prowling the feeders, the Mourning Doves flock keeps itself scarce as a group and goes elsewhere to eat for hours or days at a time.

And when hawks are around for a week or more, my local flock of American Goldfinches will often completely disappear. This fall when two Cooper’s Hawks were hunting together, the House Finches finally got fed up and left too.

It was unusual for all the finches to leave. But it was actually kind of fascinating. Without the flock birds dominating the feeders, more intermittent birds, like Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmouses, became a constant presence. They took over the place, flitting in and out of every feeder! (Eventually the finches have started to return now.)

Red-Shouldered Hawk
Red-Shouldered Hawk

How We React To Hawk Hunting at Feeders

When I first started feeding birds, I reacted to hawks the way many bird watchers do. I would run out to try and thwart the hawk attack if possible and would be heart broken if a hawk succeeded. I’ve literally had hawks grab birds right in front of me.

A Finch vs Hawk Story

One year we had a large Red-Shouldered Hawk hunting at the feeders. (Keep in mind that smaller Cooper’s Hawks or Sharp-Shined Hawks are more typical feeder hawks in my area.) I think this hawk was old or sick or maybe just found hunting in the yard more challenging than the woods because she would often just miss or not be able to hang on, leaving birds and squirrels with wounded heads or backs. I’ve never seen so many maimed birds and squirrels before or since in the yard.

One day, she chased a House Finch into a window. I heard the finch hit and went out to see if it was ok. The bird was obviously having trouble flying and couldn’t get altitude. I didn’t know there was a hawk involved and being new to this, didn’t know to look for one. So I tried to help the finch. That just scared the finch more. He was probably thinking he had two predators after it now. The result was that the finch blundered away from me right over to where the hawk swooped down to grab the finch within two feet of me.

Hawks Are Part of Backyard Birds’ World

This experience taught me something. Birds live in a wild dangerous world. We humans might have good intentions but sometimes our interference in the process of nature doesn’t really help. I think the determined hawk was going to get the injured bird either way. (Just consider that my presence didn’t deter the hawk from the hunt at all!) My blundering into the middle of the fight was not helpful.

And as much as it pains us to see the feeder birds we loved killed, the hawk has a right to eat and live too. Many times their attacks are unsuccessful and they go hungry. But sometimes they catch a bird and they get to eat.

Smaller Sharp-Shinned Hawks Hunt Feeders too
Sharp-Shinned Hawk

What Can You Do About Hawks at Feeders?

So what should we humans do about hawks at our feeders? Over the years, my approach to this has evolved. I still feel sad when I find a pile of feathers on the ground. But I’ve come to understand that hawks are part of a smaller bird’s normal life risks. While my feeders do draw birds together for the hawk to hunt, the hawk would be hunting them even if I didn’t feed birds. But the food I put out does help the lives of those birds.

Provide Cover

My approach now is to try to provide feeder birds a chance to get away from the hawks but to understand that sometimes the hawk will win. I place feeders within ten feet of cover (but not immediately next to where a lurking cat might hide.) That gives the birds a chance to get away. (If you don’t have trees or bushes close, you might consider adding a brush pile for cover.)

House Finch & American Finch in Woodlink Cage Feeder
House Finch & American Goldfinch in Cage Feeder

And some of my feeders are caged feeders (Woodlink Tube Feeders and Erva Starling Proof Suet Feeders and Bluebird Feeders.) Although the point of them is to keep larger birds like starlings and grackles out, caged feeders can also create a trickier target for a swooping hawk. I’ve actually seen small birds hide out inside cage feeders, keeping very still until the hawk threat has moved on. I’m not sure how much protection the cage would give if a hawk landed on the feeder and tried to get the bird out, but I have seen them used as cover.

But some of my feeders, being more open, are less protected. The covered platform feeders on poles are trickier for a hawk to pick a bird off of. But I’ve seen a hawk grab birds off the more open hanging platform feeders or open tube feeders, even when there is a squirrel baffle or weather guard over them.

And Cooper’s Hawks in my yard will also swoop down to go after birds on the ground. I sometimes find talon marks in the dirt under a feeder where birds pick up seed spilled on the ground. Ground feeding birds are probably the most at risk from backyard hawk attacks. So if I put seed on the ground for the sparrows, I still try to put it within ten feet of cover.

Cooper's Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk

Taking In Feeders So Hawks Leave?

Some people suggest taking feeders down for a few weeks when there is a hawk in the area. That disperses the birds so the hawk moves on. I understand that strategy and am not knocking it, but right now my feeling is that the birds in my yard make the decision on their own on whether and when to disperse.

I leave the feeders up. If the hawk is too much of a threat, the birds leave for awhile and the yard gets pretty quiet. Then the hawk doesn’t find as many birds here to hunt and moves on. Once the hawk leaves, the feeder birds return.

One thing I’m not sure about is whether the hawk follows the flock when they leave. In other words, is the hawk simply hunting the same birds elsewhere when they leave my feeders? If that is the case, my taking down my feeders might spare me from witnessing it, but probably doesn’t stop the hunt.

Hawks at Your Feeders

Have you seen hawks hunting at your feeders? Please do share your experiences, questions or comments below!

Nancie

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