House to House: Bird watchers can take steps to protect songbirds from hawks

For the last two weeks, my co-workers and I have been enjoying the flirtations and frequent visitations of a family of cardinals outside our office windows. They often perch on the small ledges outside as if to ask if we, like the 6,000-plus Realtors in Arkansas, could help them find a home. Visit the website at www.ArkansasRealtors.com to see the photo related to this article.

Like most birds, cardinals prefer to have a mixture of evergreen and deciduous trees in the vicinity of their nesting area. They’ll often build their nest in shrubs or bushes that face a meadow or lawn — all of which can be found just yards from our building.

To my disappointment, but not surprise, yesterday I witnessed the arrival of the bird I feared would find our little bird sanctuary — the red-tailed hawk. As I watched it swooping around after our cardinals, robins and other songbirds, all I kept seeing in my head were scenes from the movie, Stuart Little 2, and the voice of James Woods as the falcon warning another bird to never make a friend “he can’t eat.”

While I think red-tailed hawks are beautiful and I enjoy seeing them in Arkansas, I am really hoping not to see the “Circle of Life” play out in front of my computer screen.

First and foremost, let me make one thing clear: Under no circumstances should bird lovers ever try to shoot, trap, poison or otherwise harm birds of prey. They are protected by many federal and state laws.

So how to help our office birds?

I went online and found an article on About.com by Melissa Mayntz, who has been birding for more than 20 years. She provides a number of suggestions for how you can protect your backyard birds from hawks.

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 bird feeders 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 bird feeders 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.

Cage Feeders: Choose bird feeder 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 bird feeders 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.

House to House is distributed by the Arkansas Realtors Association. For more information about the ARA, visit www.ArkansasRealtors.com.