The long tails of accipiters or ‘true hawks’ make them very maneuverable in the air. This is ideal for pursuing birds on the wing through the boughs of the forest. Their long legs can also reach into the thorny thickets. It’s in these protective thickets where small songbirds prefer to make their nesting site. But, a Hawk’s long legs and sharp talons make grasping at victims through the thicket easy. So why do hawks eat other birds?
The main reason hawks eat other birds is that they have physical attributes perfectly suited to the task and birds make a great meal for them. They are well camouflaged beneath a treetop canopy. It’s a challenge to spot them against a dappled grey and brown backdrop of branches and yellowed leaves.
They have powerful wings that allow them to accelerate quickly. But, their span remains short enough to squeeze between all but the densest of shrubbery.
In harsh conditions, alternative food sources can be more scarce. Rodents and mammals are less active, sometimes sleeping for days at a time. Hawks are opportunistic hunters and weather conditions may force them to prey more heavily upon birds in the winter months.
Which Hawks Eat Birds?
Now that we know the answer to “why do hawks eat other birds?”, let’s learn some more about other species of hawks: Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp Shinned Hawks, and Northern Goshawks. These are the 3 species that you are most likely to observe hunting other birds in the US. There are others that hunt on the wing, such as the American Kestrel. Though often called a sparrowhawk, it technically belongs to the genus Falco.
Hawks are well-camouflaged raptors and generally launch deadly, surprise attacks against their prey from short range. Ground feeding mammals, birds, and songbirds that eat the berries from the underbrush are particularly at risk.
Suburban hawks use their fantastic eyesight as a preferred ambush tactic. They watch a feeding table through a small gap in the underbrush. When they spot a target, they take flight, bursting through the hole in a high speed surprise attack.
Species of Hawks
There are many varieties of Hawk, over 50 in the world. However, only 3 ‘true hawks’ or Accipiters reside in the USA. Most of the species named hawks in the U.S are actually from the genus Buteo, which makes them buzzards. Buteos more often take mammalian prey from the ground, but scratching birds may still fall foul of these larger non-hawks.
Red Tailed Hawks are buteos that are commonly documented pursuing avian prey up to the size of a pheasant. Red Tailed hawks have a slightly longer tail and comparatively shorter wings. This makes them more agile in the air than most buteos, thus better suited to hunting other birds.
There are buteos other than the Red Tailed Hawk, that hunt birds, such as the Harris’s Hawk. Harris’s hawks are exceptional because they are one of only a few species of raptors that hunt cooperatively. The matriarch takes charge of the hunt which can include up to 7 birds. Typically, one startles the prey from cover, while the others take chase.
Physical Differences Between Raptors
Author Note: We mentioned earlier that buteo species hawks are generally larger than their accipiter cousins. With a stockier frame, longer wingspan and shorter tails there are a number of physical attributes that reveal their differences.
The American Kestrel often referred to as a sparrowhawk actually belongs to the genus falco. Falcons are generally larger than most accipiters. However, the sparrowhawks are among the smallest of the species and are smaller than true accipiter hawks.
Sparrowhawks eat mice and crickets, but as their name suggests, they also hunt sparrows and starlings on the wing. These lightweight raptors are highly successful hunters. They range right across the Americas from Alaska in the north to the southern tip of Argentina.
Falcons have long yellow legs and narrow, swept-back wings that end in a point. Their tails are longer, and more narrow which aids maneuverability at high speed.
Territories of Hawks
Most birds that nest in the far north usually follow a short migration south in the deepest of winter to ensure they do not freeze. But, also to retain a steady source of food. Birds in the U.S with short migration patterns are being found further and further north during the winter months. There is a simple reason for this that has been identified – bird tables.
As humanity spreads, the number of bird tables that we keep stocked with food through winter also increases. With this increase in food, comes an increase in body fat, which provides an increased ability to survive in these colder areas.
Wild, hunting birds do not eat the food you set out. They are too wild for that. But, they do eat the birds, squirrels, and other critters that are drawn to your feeding station. Don’t expect your new bird table to attract hawks straight away. It usually takes a few winters for a northern bird table to attract a full ecosystem.
The first visitors to your feeder will probably be undesirable. You can expect mice, squirrels, and rats, with just a few birds. As word gets out that you are generous, always keeping your feeding table stocked, more birds will come calling. All this activity will eventually draw the eye of a hunter to complete the circle of life.
The locations you are likely to find Accipiters, Falcons, and Buteos vary greatly. This is possibly providing the simplest clue towards differentiating between them. These differences in habitat lead to a range of hunting strategies these birds employ to take the best advantage of their surroundings.
The territories that buteo hawks hunt in are usually quite flat, open areas with trees or telephone poles nearby. These poles or trees give them an elevated perch to seek out their ground-dwelling prey. Due to the nature of these hunting territories, the prey most often hunted are small mammals and rodents. These small critters form the hawk’s staple diet.
Author Note: Red Tailed hawks are an exception within the buteo genus. With their accipiter-like physical characteristics, they are more versatile,. Therefore, they are found in forested and even rainforest areas, as well as mountainous regions too.
Buteos generally kill their prey with their beak. They often devour it live on the spot they brought the animal down.
Falcons primarily hunt birds on the wing, hovering with rapid wing beats before diving at incredible speed after their prey. This affinity for diving from great heights translates across into the nesting habits of falcons too.
Falcons typically prefer to nest high up, on steep cliffs. However, falcons are now being drawn to the most urbanized areas by a plentiful source of food – pigeons. Nesting spots on the tallest buildings are perfect simulations of the cliffs they prefer in the wild.
The speed with which a falcon hits its prey usually kills it on impact. The falcon will often carry its food to a high perch where it can eat in peace.
Sparrowhawks and American Kestrels
The hunting strategies of the sparrowhawk are as varied as the habitats where they are found. They have been observed hovering before diving at their prey, as most falcons do. American Kestrels are also known to hunt from a high perch and can employ ambush strategies like an Accipiter too.
It’s not all that surprising that these birds are so adaptable. Their similar physical characteristics to Eurasian Kestrels led early settlers to name the bird the American Kestrel. It’s the size and propensity for ambushing small birds on the wing, similar to the English Sparrowhawk, led to the common name.
However, recent DNA analysis has confirmed the sparrowhawk is neither a hawk nor a kestrel. It does belong in the Genus Falco, as kestrels do, but the heritage is separate from other kestrels.
Accipiters are forest dwellers that prefer to rely on camouflage to ambush their prey over a short distance. They are cunning, voracious, and adaptable and have even been documented crashing through bushes on foot in pursuit of squirrels.
They are capable of taking a variety of prey from the ground. But are ferocious hunters on the wing and can also snatch unsuspecting prey from nests and the branches of trees.
Accipiters tend to use their long, deadly claws and strong grip to pierce and kill their prey. A testament to their accurate flying and sharp talons, accipiters can decapitate their prey in a single, lethal swoop.
What Do Hawks Typically Eat?
The preferred avian prey for hawks, simply put, is anything small enough. From cardinals and sparrows to pigeons, bats, and bluejays. Even crows, pheasants, ducks, and geese need to be wary of the larger accipiters like the goshawk.
What Else Do Hawks Eat?
Hawks eat pretty much anything they can get their talons into. Aside from birds, accipiters eat everything from bugs to opossum, crickets, spiders, frogs, mice, rats, squirrels, mink, rabbits, and hares.
What to Do if a Hawk is Harassing Your Bird Table
Author Note: If you have a feeding table for songbirds in your yard, you might find that this activity attracts raptors. Give the songbirds a fair chance to evade the predators by placing the table near a dense bush. This gives the smaller birds a place to hide.
Is your bird table out in the open? Place a small structure to enclose the feeder. This provides the smaller birds some protection while they eat. Restricting the access doorways to the food can also help you to keep away less desirable backyard birdsong. The crow, for example, might be intelligent, but the harsh cawing is not pleasant.
Most Common Suburban Hawks
Accipiters seem to do well across most of the northern states. But, it’s the Cooper’s and Sharp shinned hawks that are the first to become comfortable coexisting with humanity. These hawks have learned to ignore our constant noise and bustle.
They have adapted so much that, if you have enough trees in your neighborhood, you may come across them hunting in your backyards.
Although Hawks might have a negative impact on the number of songbirds in the garden, they are beautiful predators. Plus, they are evidence of a healthy ecosystem and their presence should be celebrated. We hope you enjoyed this article on why do hawks eat other birds.
Fly high friends!