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Baiting accipiters into the backyard

By JIM MATTHEWS This was not in the plan. Initially. Over a decade ago when I started lacing the backyard with bird feeders and scattering a variety of seed on open ground in the yard, it was to attract songbirds. I like the finches and house sparrows. Mourning doves are the early and late feeders, and the Eurasian doves are more a mid-morning visitor. The scrub jays come over and look in the sliding glass window, knowing I will get up and give them peanuts. This time of year, there are all the migrants that come through for a day or two or a few weeks at a time -- white-crowned and sage sparrows, lark sparrows, the odd crossbill, juncos, yellow-rumped warblers, and there was even an Inca dove a couple of winters ago. When a big female Cooper’s hawk starting perching in the neighbor’s tree overlooking my yard, I didn’t put two-and-two together right away. Then one day a hunting buddy was over when she flashed across the backyard at full speed just below the top of the fence line. We bolted out the sliding door just as she flew back across the yard, at a more leisurely pace but still quickly, clutching a lesser goldfinch in her talons. The goldfinch had been feeding on either the sunflowers I’d planted for them or the thistle seed sock I’d hung from one of the trees. The little bird had tried to escape by flying across the open yard and was caught right out my back door. The Cooper’s hawk disappeared over the fence with her prey. I was a little giddy. Oh, don’t tell me you don’t stop punching through the channels when you hit a nature show and a lion is chasing an antelope, and then watch in rapt awe as the female lion drags the animal down and then the whole pride lumbers up to eat. Predators are inspiring, and I was glad to have the Cooper’s hawk around. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized I’d actually baited her into my yard by attracting her favorite food here. Coming home from errands recently, I peeked out the back slider to see what birds were there. None. Not even in the nectarine tree. That was odd, I’d put out seed that morning. Then I saw her head move. She was perched on a low branch, blending in perfectly, and looking at me. Becky was in the other room, and I hissed for her to pick up the camera bag and come look. The Cooper’s hawk was close. I slid open the door and poked the lens out, snapping a couple of quick pictures, but the bird didn’t spook. I backed up and put on the doubler to bring the bird even closer in the image, while Becky watched through the kitchen window. “She’s eating something,” she said. For the next 15 minutes, we watched the Cooper’s hawk devour her lunch in our yard. Watching a Cooper’s hawk eat a female house finch, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see her ancient dinosaur genetics. The piercing eyes, the sharp beak ripping open the flesh like teeth. The finch’s feathers were ripped away and shaken off the sharp bill, floating away on the breeze. Pieces of meat and internal organs were pulled out of the body cavity like spaghetti and meatballs. The finch’s bill is ripped off and flung. As we watched, the Cooper’s hawk would stop and give us chilling glares. Though binoculars she seemed huge at the close range. We watched until the finch was mostly consumed. The hawk finally left the perch and flew out of the yard, still clutching the remains of the finch, seeking a more private location to finish the meal. After she left I went out to look through the feathers scattered under the tree. That was a decade ago, and there is still a big Cooper’s hawk that calls my backyard a feeding ground. The same Cooper? I don’t know but even when I don’t see her, I find remnants of shreaded birds where she’s snatched a meal. Yes, I put out more seed for the little birds because it’s migrant season, and I like having them around. But I don’t see anything wrong with a Cooper’s hawk coming into my yard to eat a songbird now and again. COOPER VS. SHARP-SHINED: Four bird books later and I still have trouble telling the difference between a sharp-shined hawk and a Cooper’s hawk. Put them side-by-side and I’m not sure I could tell you which was which. The other accipiter in this family, the northern goshawk, I’ve seen in Idaho and Montana on summer fishing trips and is easier to distinguish from the other two. An old bird book said sharp-shined’s look startled, while the Cooper’s look fierce. Another said the Cooper’s was “lanky” looking. All said female Cooper’s were bigger than the largest female sharp-shined. So based those three things, I’ve decided my birds have all been female Cooper’s. MORE ON DINOSAURS: Several springs ago, I watched another Cooper’s hawk land on the top of a creosote bush in the East Mojave while baby Gambel’s quail cowered beneath the plant. The bird dropped to the ground and started running around the creosote, chasing the quail that would dart from one side to the other under the low-slung branches. The hawk ran nearly as well as it flew. On open ground in a straight foot race, I would not be surprised if a Cooper’s hawk could keep up with a Gambel’s quail, especially once it wore down its talons. But then again, it’s ancient ancestors never did get off the ground, relying on their stealth and foot speed to catch prey. While the Cooper’s was determined and the baby quail terrified, somehow the young birds knew that if they bolted into the open, the hawk would be on them in a second. So they stayed under the plant, and the hawk ran them around. I watched a dozen laps through the telephoto lens. The hawk even took a few talon stabs into the base of the plant trying to snare a quail. And the dedicated momma hen quail even took her own life into her wings and rushed the Cooper’s to try to divert attention. Eventually, the hawk gave up and flew up into a mesquite. The quail had lucked out, for the time being. IT’S NOT TRUE: I admit that I thought about it, but I gave up on trapping a few finches and sparrows, fitting their little legs with miniature leg irons, putting them on short tethers, and staking them on the back fence as a more focused hawk baiting program. Why? I knew the neighbor’s house cat would get the birds before the Cooper’s hawk. END

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