All It Left Behind

by Laura, Certified Master Naturalist

A bird doesn’t have to be rare to be a surprise.  I had such a surprise, better than an unexpected gift, on a recent morning following the snow storm.

With no school lunch to pack I’d settled myself and my coffee into the old wingchair by a low living room window with a view toward the morning’s patrons at The Seed and Suet. The peaceful scene didn’t last long.  From the opposite direction, beyond my sight, a rush of motion and wings came to a furtive rest just a couple feet from me on the other side of the window pane.  Hawk! And not the familiar and frequent red-shouldered or red-tailed, but the slate grey of a sharp-shinned or cooper’s.

The hawk wasn’t empty-handed (or empty-taloned). With its back to me I could not positively identify its kill, but it looked larger than a pipsqueak of a songbird and may have been a mourning dove. The hawk itself was exceptionally imposing in size either due to its proximity, my startlement, the inflation of its feathers against the cold, or all of the above.

Cooper’s or sharp-shinned? It would be gone if I moved for camera or field guide.  It didn’t seem keen on hanging around, head turning warily this way and that, with a searing gaze that can only be described as hawk-eyed.

The aftermath...

The aftermath…

I only had the presence of mind to note the shape of its tail (squared, not rounded) before some slight movement of my own caused it to lift off in a cloud of small, soft feathers like a down pillow being torn and tossed.  They slowly settled on the blood-stained snow.

Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks (Accipeter cooperii and Accipeter striatus) belong to the same family as red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks, but the latter two are members of a separate subfamily and their genus is Buteo.  The accipeters are distinguished by their short, rounded wings and long rudder-like tails that enable them to maneuver nimbly through their densely forested habitat in a flap-flap-glide flight pattern. They are sometimes described as secretive (that would explain my sharp-shinned’s shifty looks!) and therefore less commonly observed than our “here I am!” red-shouldered and red-tailed neighbors. Songbirds are their primary diet and because females are larger than males (as with most hawks and owls), the females catch larger prey. My visitor was probably a female.

As my son said matter of factly after I relayed my experience, “Good day for the hawk, bad day for the mourning dove!”  It was an hour before songbirds returned to The Seed and Suet eatery.

For more on sharp-shinned hawks, visit everyone’s favorite bird website, Cornell University’s All About Birds.