Across much of the world, the most common garden predator is the aptly named sparrowhawk, with the occasional kestrel thrown in. If you live in the countryside you may also be visited by buzzards, Merlins or hobbies. In the US, American kestrels are also sometimes known as sparrowhawks, and along with Cooper’s, sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks can often be seen coming in for juncos, chickadees, or anything that’s mostly between sparrow and robin sized.
These birds tend to go for prey like voles, mice, and shrews, but if these are scarce they have been known to enter a garden. Larger species tend to stick to open countryside or uncluttered terrain as they won’t have adapted the agility of flight that many of the smaller raptors have. Being able to suddenly flush out from undercover and chase fast and small birds through branches is a skill that takes speed and precision.
Eat to live
Typically, these birds only really need to eat around three times a day, and they often space this out as we do – breakfast, lunch and dinner. They certainly never kill more than they need to survive, and studies have shown that only around 10% of their attempts are successful.
It is also thought that of those successes, only birds that are older, or perhaps injured or weakened in some way are caught; this may not be much consolation to us but for the songbird populations, there is an overall benefit in that the remainder will be the strongest and quickest, traits that can be passed on to the new nestlings.
Songbirds also try to have several clutches during one breeding season, so in terms of actual numbers, more nestlings appear every year than would be needed to maintain the population. If these birds weren’t predated, the strain on available resources for everyone else would be significant and most would die of starvation, and the competition for territory would be unsustainable come the new breeding season.
But – all these facts aside, it can still be very upsetting to know that something is out there stalking the birds that you have been providing for all winter long, even though that bird has to eat too. So, what can you do about these predators, and how can you do it so that there is the minimum amount of suffering for all concerned?
One of the best ways to deter birds of prey from your property – if you have the space – is to plant out native shrubs and bushes and even trees that offer densely packed foliage where the songbirds can hide if they detect an unwelcome presence. Hawks will perch up high very close by often in larger trees with splayed branches, offering them a good vantage point to assess the comings and goings.
If their view is obstructed in any way, they won’t waste the energy in trying, and move on to more accessible land. This cover needs to be within 10 feet of the feeders to offer the best escape route. By choosing plants that also provide food like fruits, seeds and nuts for the birds, you’re doing them a double service.
Hawks and falcons rely on being able to find a way through and around branches, fences, feeder poles and posts. If your feeders hang beneath branches, also attach strings of beads or shells from the same perch, like a curtain around it. This will slow down the raptors and give the smaller birds a chance to escape.
Erecting some bamboo poles along the open spaces of your yard like a slalom ski race can produce a similar effect, making the most direct approach a thing of the past.
CDs, half-full plastic drink bottles and other shiny attachable objects make great reflectors of the sunlight and can distract an incoming hawk. One of the most noticeable markings on some birds like the American and Eurasian kestrels are the dark stripes coming down from around their eyes – this is called a malar stripe and is an adaptation to prevent solar glare while hunting on bright days; soldiers and footballers have mimicked this marking for the same reason. If you can install something that will bounce that sun all over the place it will certainly impede a hawk’s intent.
Focus on the feeder
Installing a cage around or a baffle above feeders can offer some immediate shelter and obstacle. Placing feeders under covered areas, like an awning, gazebo, or umbrella, will also obscure that hawk’s view, or you could just use a covered platform feeder.
It’s worth noting that, especially in the instance of cages, this may not prevent hawks from trying and the feeder birds can still panic and experience stress, which is also a killer, but it should still give them just a few seconds of respite to evade those sharp claws and beaks.
Dont' invite them in
No, we don’t mean like with vampires; we also know you’re not going to stroll around asking hawks to come by for dinner. What we mean is, take a good look at our yard and see if you can spot any ideal lookout posts for birds of prey to perch on. If these don’t exist, those hungry hawks are going to struggle to remain unseen as they watch and wait. Walls, posts, wires, even dead branches nearby.
Whilst this last item is vital for any garden as they are of great value to fungi, mosses, lichens and insects and other organisms essential for a healthy habitat, they don’t necessarily need to be upright and elevated – lay that branch down and let nature do its work.
Having a predator frequent your garden is a thrilling and amazing thing for many people, but of course there are those who have great concern for what they consider their friends, the songbirds that come to our feeders. Witnessing something you have grown to love be predated upon is never easy but think of it this way – for there to be such a stealthy and skilled predator in your area, this is usually an indication that your songbird population is doing well.
Hawks and falcons will have spent some time staking out your patch to see what the sustainability levels are like; unless the bird is experiencing severe hunger or even starvation, there is little point preying on just one or two birds without knowing where the next meal is coming from. They wouldn’t set up home in a metaphorical desert away from water and food any more than you would and expect to last. In terms of habitat success, having a hawk nearby is, despite the threat, a good thing.