It can be an amazing sight to see a hawk descend into a backyard, but many birders prefer to protect their backyard birds from hawks rather than contribute to a predator’s meals. While it may not be possible to completely prevent hawks from visiting a backyard where small birds are regularly fed, there are many easy ways to give backyard birds an edge over aerial predators.
Hawks in the Backyard
The most common backyard hawks are all smaller birds of prey: the sharp-shinned hawk, the Cooper’s hawk and the American kestrel. While it is possible that larger hawks will visit backyards to prey on small birds, these specific birds of prey are fast, agile fliers that are well adapted to flying around feeders, buildings and trees to catch small, panicked birds.
It is important to remember that even though it may be disheartening to see a songbird fall victim to a hawk, the hawks are only playing their role in nature’s cycle and they do not kill more birds than needed to survive. In fact, studies estimate that only 10 percent of a hawk’s kills are successful, and of those, the majority of the birds the hawk takes are old, weak or sick and removing them from the flock will help strengthen the remaining birds.
Protecting Backyard Birds From Hawks
Backyard birders who prefer to offer the most possible protection for their resident flocks have several options to foil a hawk’s hunt.
- Shelter: Providing natural cover for small birds is the best way to protect them from hawk attacks. Dense trees, shrubbery and brush piles are all suitable, and shelter should be within 10 feet of birdfeeders so small birds can reach it quickly when they feel threatened. To make landscaping do double duty, choose plants that provide seeds or fruits for the birds and they will be able to feed in the cover and in complete safety.
- Shield Feeders: Place birdfeeders in covered areas such as under an awning or umbrella or hanging from lower tree branches where the canopy will prevent hawks from seeing available prey. Alternatively, covered platform feeders can provide some visual shielding from circling hawks.
- Avoid Ground Feeding: Birds that feed on the ground are more vulnerable to hawk attacks because they cannot react as quickly to a predator and their options are limited as to where to go. Avoid low feeders or feeding birds on the ground to minimize a hawk’s success.
- Remove Hawk Vantage Points: Hawks will often stake out suitable hunting grounds and wait for unwary prey to approach. To make your backyard less inviting, remove dead branches that a hawk may perch on, or choose a type of fencing they will not be comfortable with, such as thin wires that can be difficult for larger birds to grasp.
- Remove Hawk Food Sources: There are many things birds of prey eat in addition to small birds. Removing additional food sources such as field rodents or large insects will make the hunting ground less attractive, but be sure to use extermination methods that will not harm your backyard birds. At the same time, be sure to store birdseed properly so you are not inadvertently feeding rodents.
- Cage Feeders: Choose birdfeeder designs that include wire cages that protect perches and feeding ports, or build a cage around existing feeders. This will allow small birds to access the food in relative security since larger birds, including hawks, will not be able to reach them. While this will not prevent small birds from panicking at a hawk’s approach, it will help give them a moment or two to flee while slowing down the hawk.
- Protect Windows: Use decals and other methods to prevent window collisions by panicked birds. When a hawk attacks, small birds will mistakenly fly into windows and a stunned bird is easy prey.
- Remove Feeders: If hawks are still a menace to your backyard birds, remove all birdfeeders and cease feeding the birds for a week or two. After a few days, the hawk will move on to different hunting grounds but the smaller birds will quickly return when you resume feeding. The hawk may return as well, but generally it will take longer for a hawk to rediscover a good hunting area.
Tactics to Avoid
It can be frustrating to contend with aggressive birds of prey, but there are certain tactics that should always be avoided when discouraging hawks from visiting the backyard. Under no circumstances should birders ever try to shoot, trap, poison or otherwise harm birds of prey, which are protected by many federal and state laws. Similarly, do not release cats in an attempt to scare a hawk away – cats will not usually attack birds as large as hawks, and the cats themselves may become victims to larger birds of prey. Furthermore, cats are just as likely to kill the backyard birds you hope to protect.
When Hawks Won’t Leave
If a particularly aggressive hawk refuses to leave your backyard and becomes a threat to pets or humans, contact local wildlife management or animal control officials. It is possible that the bird is injured and unable to hunt in more difficult areas, or it may be nesting nearby. Either way, only licensed officials should make that determination and they will be able to either remove the bird without harming it or can offer additional advice on protecting backyard birds from hawks.