If you feed wild birds long enough, you begin to feel as if you are doing something important. Especially during the winter, when the mercury flirts with zero and every natural food source is blanketed in snow, the birds come to depend on your largesse.
In return, they reliably offer pleasures only sporadically available in the realm of people: beauty, vitality, grace, and — if you count the squirrels — humor. It is enough to make you, an ordinary human being, feel necessary in the world, because you are doing some good. You feel the solidity of your place in the family of things, in the words of poet Mary Oliver.
And so it is hard when a predator visits your feeders to take for itself, and from you, something you have come to cherish. I first experienced this on my farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, home to a variety of fierce and gorgeous raptors. I would go out on a winter morning to restock the feeders and find evidence of the past day’s kill: the pile of feathers, the crimson snow.
On the worst day, a hawk took a rare and treasured visitor, a female cardinal who, with her mate, had brightened the dreary December dawns and dusks with visits to the sunflower seed feeder outside my bay window. It left her black mask, hanging limply from her orange beak. That broke my heart, and I hated the hawk for it.
I have mellowed in the years since, acknowledging that hawks must eat, too. And that if I am going to make myself an artificial link in the food chain, I must accept that they are a natural one. In feeding the smaller birds, I have inadvertently laid the hawks a banquet, and occasionally, one will dine.
Birds know when a predator is near, so when the jays sounded their raucous alarm on a recent snowy day, I suspended my chores to investigate. My seed-strewn deck, usually dense with feeding juncos, was empty. The peanut butter log — a favorite of the nuthatches and woodpeckers –swayed vacant in the cold wind. There was not a bird to be seen on the suet cakes. My little avian village had suddenly become a ghost town. Even the squirrels were gone.
And then, not 10 feet away through my kitchen window, I saw why:
The hawk — likely a sharp-shinned but possibly a Cooper’s — seemed less hungry than cold. As I watched, it shifted on the fence pickets, lifting first one foot and then the other into the warmth of its downy breast feathers.
It looked disoriented, and I wondered if the wind and snow had forced it down. It stayed for a long time, giving me every chance to record a predatory beauty that now seemed strangely vulnerable:
By the time our photo session ended, I felt tender toward the hawk; I wanted to help. So I headed out with a few pieces of the raw ground meat I feed my hens as a treat, thinking that my offering might save the raptor some energy and a smaller bird its life. But then, it was gone. And for a long while, the fence where the hawk had perched looked too empty, and for a few minutes more, my yard felt too still.
Then, I heard them coming back, saw them descending from the snow-flecked sky and the bare branches: the juncos and finches, the jays and woodpeckers, the nuthatches and doves. The flickers and grosbeaks and chickadees. And the squirrels, of course. And so I went to get more seed and suet, remembering my place, no less than their own, in the food chain.
Just saw this post of yours from January. Love it. We are in Oregon, and this looks much like our backyard, sans the snow. And my wife and I recently tried to figure out if that hawk on the fence was a sharp-shinned or Coopers!
Thanks, Russ! Having such a long time to observe that hawk so close, in that beautiful snow, was a rare treat. Oregon is gorgeous; I’m glad you, too, get to abut and appreciate the natural world. It never gets old, unlike much of the human world. 🙂
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Thank you for sharing this post!
What a wonderful post! There is so much honesty, wisdom and understanding expressed so beautifully here. I love everything you have said. Also, your pictures are amazing! I will definitely be saving this post so I can revisit it frequently. p.s. I got quite a giggle out of you choosing to include the squirrel pictures. As you know, I find squirrels endlessly entertaining. Maureen C. p.p.s. One of the pictures in the slide show shows a black and white bird with the kind of markings one might see on a magpie on a suet feeder. What kind of bird is it please?
That actually is a magpie on the suet feeder — big galoots! So glad you enjoyed the words and images; thanks for saying so. Like you, I find the squirrels as well as the birds appealing, especially since Chloe (the subject of several posts) came into my life a few years ago. I’ve got a couple of young black morphs who regularly visit; I think they’re her kids, though they lack her boldness. She probably didn’t want to teach them how to charm me, lest she be forced to share her peanuts.
This is a wonderful post. The photos (and video) are so vivid! I’ll have to share this with my birding friends!
Delighted that you enjoyed it and want to pass it on. Thank you!
Such a marvelous bird-photo show you’ve given us! Thank you!
I confess to preferring seed-eaters (or maybe those after small bugs) to the hawks … but feeding seeds brings both. We have owls here that I worry about, as they can take a cat, yet I so enjoy their nightly vocals.
You’re welcome, Jazz! I certainly understand ambivalence about predatory raptors. I had one — probably an owl — take a small hen one evening in the Upper Peninsula. I didn’t see it, but Punky must have struggled, as she got dropped. I was so fortunate to find her in the field after dark, and she recovered completely from a deep, quarter-sized hole in the back of her neck, I assume from the raptor’s beak. It shook us both, though!
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We too have hawks come to our yard seeking the little ones who feed at our feeder. My husband always says the raptors too have to beat out a living. Rather sad but our family of small birds are quick and it is usually the youngest who are captured.
I do have a funny story – we have along one side of the yard a couple of bar berries. They are cut to fence high and are kind of tall, skinny and very thorny. The birds love to sun themselves there in spring and fall. It overlooks the birdbath and they take turns using that too.
These bushes came in handy one day for them. A hawk swooped in. They dove into the thorny center of the bushes. Then the hawk tried to get them and in his frustration got a foot stuck on a thorn. He kind of hung in shock for a few moments before he tugged his way out and split the scene. Lots of points for the sparrows, chickadees, and juncos!!
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Great story! Do you suppose there’s such a thing as predator karma? 🙂
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