Monday, January 28, 2008

Backyard Visitor

A newcomer visited our backyard this morning.

A crow came by briefly. It's the first time this bird has landed in our yard, but that's not very exciting, and it's not why I'm telling this story.

Around 7:20, I was just about to make some coffee when I looked out the window. There were no birds on the feeders hanging from the shepherds' hooks. There were no birds along the fence where I had put out sunflower seeds earlier in the morning. There were no birds around the suet block, either. That's strange, I thought. Birds generally feed in the early morning.

I looked toward the row of hedges that separates our backyard from our neighbor's for a clue. That's where the sparrows and black-capped chickadees tend to hang out. No birds. I looked at our row of gardens, the place where the juncos hop and peck on the ground. No birds.

And then I saw why: Perched on the hedge was a sharp-shinned hawk. Its body was erect. Its head swiveled from side to side; its yellowish eyes scanned the surroundings for prey. The hawk knew breakfast was hiding in the hedges, and it regularly looked down and tried to follow the movements of the sparrows flitting within the hedge. From time to time, the hawk would take two exaggerated hops along the hedge, shaking the limbs as it tried to flush the sparrows out.

The scheme wasn't working, so the hawk moved to plan B. It would spy a sparrow within the hedge and swoop downward, crashing through the branches as it pursued the little bird. But sparrows are fast, and they can maneuver more adroitly within the tangled confines of the hedge. Time and time again, the hawk tried. But it was having no luck. The sparrows had homefield advantage.

After about ten minutes of this avian version of cat-and-mouse, the hawk perched itself again on top of the hedge. It seemed to be thinking, "If I can't get it myself, I'll have it come to me." The hawk puffed its chest, billowing its feathers to protect itself against a stiff northerly wind. It waited for its prey to arrive.

After about ten minutes, I saw a bird zoom from my left toward the feeder or the hedge. Already the hawk had lifted into flight at the bird's approach. Within seconds, the hawk had shot forward to meet the incoming bird, banked sharply to the right and appeared to smash against the side of the neighbor's garage, located at the end of the hedge row. I saw a small bird fly away from right to left.

The hawk was now on the ground. It appeared to be evaluating what went wrong. But then I noticed that it was gripping something with its three yellow talons. It had caught a bird after all, a sparrow. I never saw it happen. Either the hawk had snagged the arriving bird or had snatched another in the melee. In any event, breakfast was served. With quick, jerky pecks, the hawk began disassembling its prey. Feathers scattered in the wind as the hawk tore into the carcass. Little specks of blood wet the snow. Within moments, the victim's head had been severed, and the hawk drilled into the stump that remained. Soon, there was nothing left except a smattering of feathers and a wing on the ground. The hawk left, and Tigger, our neighbor's cat, had already come to search for leftovers.

I guess I should feel sorry for the sparrow. But I couldn't help but be fascinated at the spectacle of watching this sharp-shinned hawk hunt for food in an unlikely setting.

I haven't seen a single bird in our yard since the encounter. I hope they're not too traumatized.

I wonder if we'll see the hawk again.


Leeann said...

Okay, YUCK! lol

Speaking of seagulls from your previous post, can you believe we have them here? They hang out in parking lots.


Marsha said...

That was interesting. I've never seen anything like that but after your description of the hawk drilling into the little bird and the cat coming in for the remains, I think I'll pass. It sounds like something that should be on the National Geographic show.
Keep up the good blogging though. We are all enjoying it.

Richard Lewis said...

They hang out in parking lots here, too. One reason, I guess, is they have figured out that there are food scraps in parking lots, and they are scavengers. However, I've also watched them in parking lots next to beaches. They stand in rows, like soldiers on a battlefield, their faces pointed toward the wind. Not sure if there's any reason for the orientation.

Leeann said...

So what the hell is going on? How are ya? A week til the trip to Dad's!