November 16th, 2015

By Jon Wogen, TBC Board member, and printed with permission by the Renville County Register

Those of us who enjoy bird watching and bird feeding are probably aware of the predators that sometimes visit our yards and bird feeding areas.

A predator is of course, a critter that catches and eats prey. Bird lovers get pretty upset when a predator attacks and kills one of “their” birds. I confess that a predator can get my temper up a bit too, but it quickly subsides as I remember that our native predatory critters must eat too.

There is a qualification to my stating that a predator needs to eat too. I said “native” predators. The qualification is the feral housecat. This predator is a non-native species, an invasive species that doesn’t fit in the scheme of the natural world in our country. Yes, even a well-fed housecat will hunt and attempt to kill birds and other prey. It is just what they do.

There are two kinds of predatory housecats out there. One is good old “tabby” whose owners let him out to prowl around and hunt, thinking that they are just so full of food that they won’t kill any prey. The other housecat is one that doesn’t come from a home, or was just dumped out of a car and left to fend for itself. These become wild, and no longer friendly to people and are totally dependent upon themselves and their hunting skills to kill prey to sustain themselves. Sometimes they form colonies when they find a safe, warm place to survive outdoors and enough prey species to sustain their numbers.

We have watched a housecat sneaking up on birds at and around our feeders. As the housecat stalks the prey birds, the prey seems to be almost hypnotized at times. The cat can get way too close to the birds and suddenly lunges and grabs one for a meal. At other times, the birds make such an issue of a cat in the neighborhood that all birds in the area are on alert.

It is the responsibility of a cat owner to leash it if it is allowed outside. This cat is a very efficient predator and it is hard on some populations of birds if not leashed. Keep the cat indoors and save the birds


One of the predators of birds that kill them for food and not for fun is the bird hawk. Many species of bird hawks live in America. But, two of them are very common in our towns. Yes, they find nesting and protective habitat to survive even in winter in our towns.

These two species are the Cooper’s Hawk and the Sharp-Shinned Hawk. These both thrive on birds, but will on occasion take small mammals at times too.

If you feed birds, you will eventually see one of these two species of hawks attack a bird on your yard. Seeing a wonderful Dark-eyed Junco in the clutches of a bird-eating hawk will get you upset.

But bird hawks are a natural predator, unlike the non-native housecat. As we watch the hawk plucking the feathers of its prey, we must remain calm and remember that hawks must eat to survive.

We feed small birds to give them energy to survive the stress of winter and dodging the attacks of predators. Then, suddenly the birds we are feeding become food for another bird. That Junco feeding the Cooper’s Hawk will give the hawk enough energy to keep warm and survive a few more days during the hard winter weather.

We must just accept that native birds of all kinds need to eat to survive, whether small birds we feed and enjoy, or hawks that eat them to survive.

Mother Nature can be very harsh. Life can be difficult for any species of animal, especially in winter. This predator-prey conflict goes on as it did for millions of years. Prey species develop skills to avoid capture, and the predator species develop skills to overcome those skills of the prey. Violence is just a part of nature that we must accept.


Vegetarianism is also a fact of life in nature. The Monarch butterfly lays an egg on a milkweed plant. It hatches into that “ugly” worm, the caterpillar that eats the milkweed leaves. Monarchs are so dependent upon milkweed to feed their babies that they have become tied to the population of milkweed to survive.

My friend, Sven said that his milkweeds during late summer were almost devoid of leaves as the Monarchs had laid so many eggs on them. They hatched out well, produced adult Monarchs and they migrated south in their slow migration to Mexico for the winter.

This form of “violence” in nature is much easier to accept than the killing of one animal by another, but both are very important to the survival of each species.

‘Nuff said?


If you are interested in identification of the common bird hawks you might see at your feeders, check the September/October 2015 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest. This article describes and shows pictures of the two species, Cooper’s and Sharp-Shinned Hawks, and how to identify them.

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