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The Food Chain through the Kitchen Window

Bill Meredith

"It's a jungle out there." …
Randy Newman, theme for "Monk," USA TV Network

A couple of years ago a local store had a sale on garden statues, and my wife, who never does things halfway, bought five of them. They are in the form of fairies, about two feet tall (including wings), with faces rather like the Irish girl who was the lead dancer in the "Riverdance" program. One of them spent the winter standing outside our front porch. She is dressed in a gossamer gown that is not well suited for the cold, but she didn't seem to mind; she smiled dreamily at the bird feeder across the frozen lawn, and took whatever happened in stride.

One morning last month as I staggered in pajamas and robe from the bedroom toward the aroma of coffee in the kitchen, I chanced to look through the window at the porch fairy. She was not alone; perched on her head was a male sharp-shinned hawk. He was only a bit larger than a blue jay; from the distance of 10 feet or so, I could see the delicate red bars across his breast and the white edges of feathers in the brownish gray of his back. He looked too dainty to be a predator; his legs were as thin as yellow wires. But the hooked beak and needle-sharp talons on his toes clearly showed what he was designed for. He feeds almost exclusively on small birds, and the look of aggravation on his face showed that he had just made a pass at a sparrow on the feeder and missed.

We keep several bird feeders situated where they are visible from the kitchen window. During breakfast I regularly see about 18 species of birds; ten additional ones have visited occasionally this winter. Each species is unique in its feeding habits. Most of them are primarily seed eaters; various sparrows, finches and cardinals perch on the feeders and spill more seeds than they eat onto the ground, where mourning doves, juncos and blue jays stand waiting. Insect eaters include two kinds of woodpeckers and Carolina wrens; they concentrate on the suet container. Nuthatches, titmice and chickadees, normally insect-eaters, share the suet, but they also carry sunflower seeds from the feeders to a nearby tree. Unlike the finches, their beaks are not strong enough to crack the seeds open, so they have to peck at them until they break.

We have such a variety of birds because there is cover available for them to hide in. Junipers, boxwoods and yews line the front of the house, and the smaller birds dive into them when danger threatens. We can tell what the danger is from their reaction. When cars, people or dogs come by on the street, the birds fly off nonchalantly, and quickly come back. Passing cats cause them to fly up into the trees and scold from relative safety. But an approaching hawk causes the purest imaginable form of panic; they dive headlong into the nearest juniper or boxwood and stay there.

The panic is well justified. In addition to the "sharpie" that perched on the fairy's head, two others are in the area. One, the kestrel or sparrow hawk, is about the same size as the sharpie; it is actually a falcon, a very fast flier, and feeds on mice as much as small birds. The other is the Cooper's hawk; it is a larger cousin of the sharpie, and nearly identical in color, but as large as a crow. It is a powerful predator, and prefers birds up to the size of pigeons, but will eat smaller ones also.

It is fairly common to see one of the hawks zooming across the yard, but I have only seen them catch their prey twice. One was a sharp-shin that flew into a flock of English sparrows and hit one of them in the air; there was an explosion of feathers, and the hawk flew off with the sparrow in its talons. The other was one morning when I was sitting at the table without my glasses on, and noticed what looked like a blue and orange rag on the ground under the feeder. When I got my glasses adjusted, the "rag" turned into a male kestrel; he had just struck a sparrow, and had spread his wings and tail over it to prevent its escape until he was sure it was dead. The act was over in seconds, and he flew off with his breakfast in one claw.

As Mr. Monk's theme song says, it's a jungle out there. But nature is neither "red in tooth and claw," as Kipling claimed, nor are jungles the peaceful Edens that Rousseau described. Nature is impartial. The hawks have to eat, and at least they are efficient about it; they do not play with their victims as cats do. And the birds that eat seeds in winter are predators too; they will feed on insects when nesting season comes. In fact, the stability of entire ecosystems depends on the food chain working effectively; predators are one of the main forces that keep populations of other animals from growing too fast and destroying their environment.

Winter weather does more damage to small birds than predators do. After nights with sleet or freezing rain, I often see small birds hopping about on one foot, the other damaged or broken by ice. Some of them recover; several years ago, a one-legged junco hung around my feeder for the whole winter. But most of them do not fare so well. Birds around a feeder are competitive, and the competition is most severe against their own kind because they are after the same sort of food. Watch them, and you will see that each individual maintains a characteristic space around itself, attacking others if they get too close; and this defended space is larger for birds of the same species than for others. Injured individuals get no mercy; they are driven away from the best food sources, and have to make do with leftovers or starve.

Occasionally predators such as hawks will catch healthy individuals, but the majority of their prey are old, sick or injured. When hawks attack, failure is the rule; they probably miss as much as 90 percent of the time. I often see hawks perched on a tree or utility wire, watching a flock of small birds; they are trying to improve the odds, looking for individuals that are not as vigorous or alert as the rest. The idea of "survival of the fittest" (which was originally coined by Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin) is stated more properly as "the elimination of the least fit."

Knowing all this, the porch fairy calmly allows the hawk to sit on her head, and I make no effort to chase him away. The feeder is there to attract birds for us to see, and the hawk is as much to be admired and enjoyed as the sparrows, finches and cardinals; he is an essential part of the natural scene. In fact, I envy the fairy's acceptance of all things as they are. Last summer she fell over and broke the tip off of one wing, and before I got around to gluing it back, a nest of yellow jackets had moved into it… but that's another story.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith