Brown Hawks are agile hunters – Waterbury Roundabout

One late winter day, I heard our dog barking violently from the yard. I came out to find him standing about 6 feet from a hawk that was on the ground next to our house. I grabbed the dog’s collar, brought it up, and watched the falcon through a window.

It was an immature sharp-shinned hawk, about a foot long, with a dark brown back, vertical streaks on its white chest, and piercing yellow eyes. The falcon had probably crashed into the house trying to catch a bird at our feeder. I thought maybe he was dizzy and would recover shortly.

Sharp-shinned hawks are North America’s smallest accipiters, a group of hawks identified by their short wings, long tails, and distinctive flight silhouette. Unlike the falcon in our garden, adult pointy-skinned falcons have slate-grey backs and horizontal orange bars on their chests. Both adults and juveniles have black bands on their long, square-tipped tails.

It can be difficult to distinguish a sharp-shinned hawk from its larger cousin, the Cooper’s hawk, which has similar coloring but a rounded tail tip. Sharp-shinned females are one-third larger than males and can approach the size of a male Cooper’s hawk.

Sharp-shinned hawks are found year-round in all but the northernmost parts of the northeast. Birds that breed in Canada and extreme northern New England winter in the southern United States and as far south as Central America, those that migrate take advantage of updrafts along ridges and may form small groups.

They are one of the most common hawks seen in fall hawk watches. Sharp-shins breed in dense forests and prefer conifers for nesting. As a forest-dependent species, they are vulnerable to intensive logging and forest fragmentation caused by development.

Author and ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, writing in 1937, described the pointy-haired hawk as a “bold and dashing little hawk, the terror of all little birds”. These raptors use the element of surprise when hunting. They can fly at speeds of up to 28 miles per hour and are adept at maneuvering through thick woods. They hide in trees along forest edges, including on low perches, and ambush their prey. They fly low over open areas, hiding behind outlines, and pop up to grab a bird in the air or from a branch in their talons.

During the winter, brown hawks hunt small birds and mammals along the edges of woods and sometimes at feeders. In addition to the hawk that hit our house, I’ve seen several other sharp shins roosting in the trees near our feeder over the years. The increasing popularity of bird feeding may have increased the populations of this falcon and allowed them to winter further north than in the past. Songbirds make up 90% of the sharpshin’s diet.

They also consume mice, voles, and sometimes grasshoppers and moths and prey on the nestlings of other birds when raising their own young. Although sharp shins primarily hunt small birds, they have been known to kill larger birds. I once witnessed a prolonged interaction between a Brown Hawk and a Pileated Woodpecker. The hawk repeatedly flew over the woodpecker, which kept jumping around the tree trunk to dodge attacks. Eventually, the falcon was disturbed by an approaching human and flew away.

It turned out that the falcon in our yard was not just stunned, but also injured. A few hours after discovering it, I went out again. The hawk started hopping around our fenced yard, spreading one wing, but not the other. He appeared to have a broken wing and could not fly. I called the game warden, and he gave me the name of a local wildlife rehabilitator experienced with raptors, who managed to capture the injured falcon with a net. He skillfully cradled the bird in his arms before putting it in a pet carrier for transport.

If you keep an eye on your bird feeders and surrounding trees, you might also get a glimpse of this agile hunter.

Susan Shea is a Vermont-based naturalist, writer, and conservationist. The Outside Story is attributed to and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

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