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Dealing with birds of prey at your feeders

birds of prey
A young Merlin peers from a perch in the author’s neighborhood. Its parents hunted local songbirds to feed their brood. Photo by Laura Erickson

One spring morning a couple of decades ago, I heard horrible screeching and ran out to see a Cooper’s Hawk ripping into a still-alive robin on my neighbor’s back lawn. The robin was screaming, and his mate, facing the hawk head-on less than 3 feet away, screamed even louder until the hawk finally took off with its meal.

So many years later, I still feel a visceral sorrow remembering that robin, who was no generic bird — he was my robin. For a few years running, from the day he arrived in March through mid-July, he’d sing from the spire of my big spruce tree. The dry spring that year delayed nest building. (Robins need wet mud to construct their nests.) Thanks to rain the day before, the nest, right next to the house, was suddenly half-built, and now the male was dead.

I thought the female would move on, but the next morning, there she was, a new mate bringing her nest materials. He never sang from my spruce, and I didn’t have the same affection for him, but the pair fledged two batches of young that year.

At the time, I was a raptor counter at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, less than a mile from my house, where we counted thousands of hawks winging past each fall. I often saw kestrels snatching dragonflies out of midair, Merlins tearing into swirling flocks of waxwings, or an accipiter ripping into a loose flock of jays, making me appreciate how difficult predators’ lives are. Green darner dragonflies are abundant during kestrel migration, yet the little falcons often came up empty, and hawks aiming for birds had even worse luck. In Duluth, Cooper’s Hawks are rarer than Northern Goshawks, so when I did see one at the ridge, I was always thrilled, never thinking of my poor robin.

Most of us human omnivores eat meat, but even avid hunters scavenge the majority of their protein at the grocery store rather than kill it themselves. A species that produces helpless babies must have a deeply rooted impulse to protect small beings. When we invite small birds to our feeders, we feel a similar instinct, and perhaps a moral imperative, to safeguard them.

When a pair of Merlins nested on my street, one often cruised down the block, dropping low, its wingtips barely clearing the sidewalk as it passed my house, staying completely out of sight of feeder birds until the moment it banked and cleared the corner hedge. Despite this well-executed maneuver, it usually came up empty, but after I saw it grab a siskin and then a junco, I closed down my feeders for the duration. I set out suet and seeds to attract birds, not to attract birds that might eat those birds. Even with no feeders around, both songbirds and birds of prey manage just fine.

I loved having the splendid little falcons in my neighborhood and felt exultant when I saw two adorable fledglings, proof of their parents’ hunting success. There’s a real inconsistency here, but I can’t help it. I’m only human. 

This article was published in the “Attracting Birds” column in the March/April 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

From our galleries: View photos of Merlin and Cooper’s Hawk

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