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Roy Lukes: The Fearless Sharp-Shinned Hawk

A fearless Blue Jay-sized predatory bird caused me to turn slightly chicken many years ago. The experience undoubtedly helped me to respect these important little “thunderbolts” much more realistically than if I had just read about their attributes in a book.

My teaching year just ended and I had come to visit with my parents in Kewaunee. A small bog-surrounded lake in the country attracted my attention especially because of its unusual plants such as bog laurel, pitcher plants and sundew. A narrow logging road had been cut through the evergreen woods near the lake and it was there that the surprise attack occurred.

Within seconds after I stepped onto the road I began hearing what sounded like a disturbed robin uttering its shrill notes. The alarm notes appeared to be coming from a medium-sized tamarack tree growing at the edge of the road opening.

Curious about the concealed bird I headed in the direction of the commotion. Suddenly without warning I found myself being the target of a dive-bombing sharp-shinned hawk. So that’s what all the fuss was about. Over and over the slim-bodied accipiter (ak-SIP-i-ter) buzzed me, coming within inches of my hands held upward in protection of my head.

The closer I approached what I thought was the nest, the more frequent and relentless the attacks became. Finally I broke off a leafy willow branch, held it overhead, and backed away from the brave hawk and out of the woods, waving my flag of truce in retreat. A two-pound dynamo had thoroughly humiliated and routed a 160-pound “bog-trotter.”

The more interested I became in birdwatching the more experiences I had with sharp-shinned hawks. I must confess I was slightly shaken the day I learned that about 95 percent of the diet of this little predator consisted of small songbirds. Needless to say my emotions were mixed whenever I saw a sharpie take a bird such as a goldfinch or a pine siskin.

Little by little, like pieces of a puzzle, the total story took shape. It wasn’t the simple matter of viewing these and other predatory birds on a profit and loss basis. One had to know they were vital members of properly functioning wildlife communities where thousands of so-called food chains laced together the many forms of wildlife of all sizes – a giant and intricate web of life.

Paul Errington, the famous wildlife biologist from Iowa, said, “It is unfortunate that man, the specialist in evil, sees in predation among wild animals so much evil that isn’t there.”

The winter of 2008-2009 went down in our field notes as having more sharp-shinned hawk sightings in this region than the many pervious winters combined. We watched on at least a dozen occasions one of these small accipiters perched in the aspen tree right outside our kitchen windows seemingly wondering where all the birds had gone.

Invariably they impressed us as being tense, fidgety and high strung. On very cold days the hawk would land and immediately pull one of its legs and foot under its body feathers for warmth. We noticed too how the bird would lower its white under-tail feathers to help warm its bare legs.

A sharp-shinned hawk shows thin legs and the straight edge of its tail as it sits in the rain looking for its next meal. Photo by Roy Lukes.

A sharp-shinned hawk shows thin legs and the straight edge of its tail as it sits in the rain looking for its next meal. Photo by Roy Lukes.

The sharp-shinned, like other accipiters, namely the northern goshawk and the Cooper’s hawk in this region, has short, rounded wings and a relatively long tail. These two features provide it with great bursts of speed and maximum maneuverability in their quest of small birds most often in wooded habitats.

Their flight is easy to spot as they flap and sail, flap and sail. They ease up to their unsuspecting victims, perch concealed, and then dive with headlong speed through the brush in pursuit of their prey.

Females are about a third larger than the males. A male Cooper’s hawk can be quite close to the size of a female sharp-shinned hawk. Care must be taken in identifying them. This unusually wild and shy predator is known for its long-shanked thin legs and needle-pointed claws. Its flying skill is fantastic, matched by the bird’s ferocity in spite of its small size.

Early in the summer of 1978 my friend Chuck Miller and I were just about to begin working on the unfinished observation platform at The Ridges Sanctuary. Chuck was sitting on a small pile of decking wood stacked approximately four feet from a large pine tree. His back was to the tree as he worked at pulling on his hip boots. I was approaching him, about 40 yards away, when suddenly I saw a sharp-shinned hawk fly toward us from the east in a rapid headlong flight.

The second it saw me it veered to the right and flew directly between my friend and the pine tree. It all happened so fast that by the time I hollered to Chuck the hawk was gone. The entire maneuver was so quiet and smooth that my partner had no idea what had happened. We had approached the outer fringes of the bird’s nesting territory and it had come to see what we were up to.

Man’s rules about the life and death of other creatures are not always good and seldom defensible. He frequently gloats in his elevated role as chief predator of the animal world. Keep in mind that the diminutive sharp-shinned hawk lives by killing and eating other smaller animals. We as humans no longer exist as a hunting culture. Now we pay others to kill our “meat” animals for us. Please keep that in mind the next time you get out a shotgun to defend your songbirds from a visiting bird of prey. Remember that all native birds are protected by state and federal laws.

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