The Eye of the Sharpie

Hawks don't eat carrots

Sharp-shinned Hawk

I'd glanced away from the window when something thumped against the glass. When I looked up, birds were exploding out of the yard like shrapnel. 

Water still rippled in the birdbath. There was no bird lying in the snow, so whoever slammed into the window must have made it to the safety of the evergreens.

I looked for the cause of the explosion.

Before the thud, my backyard was a scene of peace and abundance. Morning filled my living room with soft light. A cardinal perched plump in the hawthorn tree, his red color muted by the falling snow.

My never-frozen birdbath, an endless supply of birdseed, and berry-giving shrubs made my yard an oasis for birds. Juncos jumped backwards on the ground, scratching for sunflower seeds. Three mourning doves drank from the heated bath.

But there, on a low branch over the bath, orange eyed, alert as an angel, was the causeā€”an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk. Her head swiveled in little jerks like the second hand of a watch. It cocked up as she studied bare branches above, and down as she searched for any bird that might be hoping to escape notice on the ground.

A royal visitor

She was beautiful, a joy to see. Hawks are not common like juncos and cardinals. I knew she had come to my yard for them though, just as they came for berries and birdseed.

Hawks don't eat carrots. Sharp-shinned hawks eat birds, and I don't begrudge them their rightful prey, even in my yard. I know that wild predators help keep prey populations healthy by picking off the weak and the slow.; She was a royal guest. But I was uneasy. Would she catch a bird, and who would it be?

Tufted Titmouse

As the sharpie watched over the empty yard, two tufted titmice flitted into a hawthorn tree. I knew these two little grey birds and regarded them as friends. I feared that if one of them went for the seeds on the platform feeder, the sharpie would have it in a her yellow talons.

And then I began to shrink from my manly acceptance of nature and all its processes. "Ohh," I moaned out loud, "Not the titmice!" Where were the expendable House Sparrows when we needed one? Inwardly I offered an incautious junco to the sharpie. One could be spared, to nourish the hungry hawk. But my yard had only two Tufted Titmice, with their cheery lisping calls, with their bright black eyes and expressive crests that rise and fall with their moods.

My dilemma

The titmice wanted those sunflower seeds. They worked their way through the hawthorn toward the feeder. And I kept moving up closer to the window, until my hands were pressed flat against it. "Don't do it!" I pleaded. "It's not worth it! She'll get you." I was begging a sparrow, a junco, a cardinal, anything, to come out of hiding.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

The sharpie turned her head away from the titmice, as if uninterested. She preened the delicate white-and-orange feathers of her breast. She turned her head around and ran her bill through the dark feathers of her back. She stretched her long, grey-and-white-banded tail, spreading it like a fan, and shook it.

A titmouse perched on the tip of a branch over the feeder. It leaned down toward the seeds.

Should I try to warn the titmouse by waving my arms? If I did, maybe I would startle the bird I was trying to save, distract it, cause it to make a mistake. I stood as if paralyzed.

And, paralyzed, I had time to ponder whether I really wanted to interfere. I definitely wanted to save the titmouse. But did I want the sharp-shinned hawk's orange eye to close forever? I treasure the charming titmice in part because they are less common than juncos and cardinals. Yet even titmice are abundant compared to sharpies, and their lives are easier. The hawk's difficult role is to hunt and capture wild, watchful birds, or else perish.

This sharpie might have traveled traveled hundreds of miles from her breeding grounds in the north to get to my Iowa backyard, surviving on her speed and wits. Why hadn't she kept she kept going south for the winter? Many sharpies do. Perhaps she was starving and did not have the strength to continue. The meal that she sought in my yard that morning might have been a matter of life and death for the hawk as well as for the titmice.

A daring solo

The titmouse flies

At last, when the sharpie's head was turned aside, one of the titmice dashed to the platform feeder, snatched a sunflower seed, and bounced back into the shelter of the thorny branches.

I gasped. The hawk looked hard at the titmouse and then returned to preening. 

Apparently that was sufficient adventure for the titmice. They drifted through the hawthorn and evergreens and out of the yard. The hawk sat in the maple for half an hour, occasionally flicking away the snow that fell upon her, but no other birds came out into the open. At last she leaned forward and sailed off the branch and across the snowy lawn, out of sight. In a few minutes my yard was full of birds once more.

Hope of the human heart

The sharpie must have found something to eat elsewhere. She did not starve, for she returned occasionally throughout the winter. I found feathers on the ground few times. Once I saw her catch a house finch. Tufted Titmice were still visiting my yard when spring came.

Against all reason I had wanted both to cheer for the Sharp-shinned Hawk and to save the titmice. And this time, nature indulged my sentimental heart. Sharpie and the titmice all survived.

In a larger view, such a wish is not necessarily a vain hope. We have an emotional, almost instinctive, desire to preserve individual birds that we know and love. If we can extend that desire to embrace entire species and the natural habitats on which their existence depends, we can save more than one or two birds. We can preserve what makes our planet a good place for all species to live, including ourselves.