January is a busy backyard bird-feeding month here in east Texas. It's wintery enough for birds to receive handouts from us bird lovers in the form of black oil sunflower seeds. For the lucky birds in our backyard, we are spoiling them with a fine mixture of a songbird seed mix including safflower. They do love it - we have a large flock of goldfinches that have taken up residence here at the edge of the woods, and they play very nicely with our year-round population of cardinals, blue jays, house finches and Carolina wrens. The Carolina chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches also welcome their similarly sized new feeder mates with hospitality. The red bellied woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers generously share birdfeeder space with them as well, and our new visiting brown thrasher pecks and claws the ground in and around the azalea bushes and mulched areas along with the goldfinches, white throated sparrows and black-eyed juncos. It has seemed like a birds' paradise - everyone getting along nicely, no bullies upsetting the peaceful coexistence of so many species sharing the space together. Even the squirrels seem to have tapered their frenzied eating - helped in part by the baffles we've installed on a couple of the feeder poles.
Ah, yes...all is well with the world, until reality bears its brutal head in the form of a hawk with sharp talons, an appetite for birds, and an opportunistic mind. At least one Accipiter has brought this peaceful paradise back to the reality of this world - birds are prey to birds of prey, in the form of Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks, and they have found their opportunity at our backyard birdfeeder paradise.
These two species of hawks, as I have learned, are somewhat difficult to differentiate in the field. Both inhabit east Texas, both juveniles are similar in appearance, and both have a craving for their own kind, even if smaller than themselves. I have wondered if I should post a sign for my seed eating friends near the feeding poles reading, "Eat at your own risk - cannibalism is sometimes practiced here". Our little birds have learned the drill - when the unwelcome bird-eating guest swoops out of nowhere, they immediately hide in the bushes, or stand dead still within the camouflage of leaf mulch and vegetation. Now it is a battle of wills and patience. Who will move first? Who will give up first?
I have watched the juvenile hawk sit on a tree branch, head slowly moving side to side, cocking his eyes down and up, searching for movement. This brave predator has even swooped down around a bush to try and flush out the hiding prey, sometimes succeeding. My eye cannot even follow the ensuing flight of prey and predator, exploding like guided missiles into the woods, and disappearing. I am thankful I don't see the result. There is a deathly stillness around the backyard for minutes afterwards, but, eventually, the twittering and fluttering returns, and the happy coexistence of species sharing eating spaces resumes, almost as if any memory of trying to keep from being eaten has been forgotten. Now it is my turn to forgive and forget - for these juvenile hawks have to eat, too, and they are part of a healthy ecosystem of checks and balances, keeping populations at sustainable levels. I know this to be true, but I just don't like to see it happening in my backyard!
So, life goes on here at the edge of the woods, and even though it might not be paradise, it surely is a happy place of lessons learned for bird and man alike. Risks are a part of life, and these feathered friends embrace life with a seemingly joyful will to survive, thrive and nurture young to ensure the continuation of their place in the world. And how sweet a world it is with them in it!