Backyard birders are often dismayed when a hawk visits their yard, but encouraging hawks is actually the gold standard of backyard birding. Neighborhoods have fewer resident hawks than other common backyard birds, and raptors require a rich, vibrant ecosystem to thrive. Because of this, attracting backyard hawks is an excellent achievement that illustrates just how bird-friendly a backyard can be.
Why We Should Love Hawks
While it can be upsetting to see a raptor make a meal of a goldfinch, cardinal or other favorite backyard species, the existence of raptors in a neighborhood is a strong indication of a wildlife-friendly area. Furthermore, hawks do not prey solely on birds – many raptors eat snakes, large insects and a variety of rodents, including mice, rats and squirrels. Hawk hunting activities help keep the presence of these less welcome residents in check. If there are hawks in the neighborhood, the local ecosystem is healthy and balanced, and it can be a treat for birders to witness raptor behavior in their backyard.
Backyard Raptors to Expect
Not every type of raptor is likely to make an appearance in a birder's backyard, depending on where that backyard is and what the nearby habitat is like. Eagles, vultures and other large raptors are unlikely to be backyard guests except in very special circumstances, such as rural regions where their prey and habitat needs are precisely met.
Smaller raptors that are more adaptable to a variety of conditions may visit backyards in suburban or even urban areas, however. In North America, the most common backyard raptors include:
- American kestrel
- Barred Owl
- Broad-winged hawk
- Cooper's hawk
- Eastern screech-owl
- Great horned owl
- Red-shouldered hawk
In other areas of the world, similar accipiters as well as smaller hawks and falcons may also be occasional backyard guests.
How to Attract Hawks
The key to attracting any type of backyard bird, including raptors, is to meet the bird's needs for food, water, shelter and nesting sites. Hawks and other raptors have specialized needs that can be more difficult to meet in individual yards or gardens, but backyard birders can work to make their yards more hawk-friendly.
- Food: All raptors are carnivorous, but they do not all eat the same prey. The most common backyard hawks tend to be avivorous and prey on smaller birds, from finches and sparrows to doves and thrushes. The best way to supply that prey is to attract backyard birds with a good feeding station and other natural foods, and where the birds congregate, a raptor will eventually drop in for a snack. Insects and rodents are also common prey, and backyard birders should take steps to be sure those potential food sources are available as well. It is not acceptable, however, to deliberately try feeding hawks. Do not bait raptors with offers of pet mice or other treats, however well-intentioned – if the natural prey is available, the birds will find it.
- Water: While most raptors do not regularly drink – they get sufficient liquid from the blood of their prey – they will visit bird baths to cool off and bathe, particularly during hot summer months. Bird baths need to be larger and deeper to accommodate raptors, however, and sturdy, concrete bird baths or similar designs are best. Ground bird baths are also suitable, and bird bath fountains that include a deep basin will help attract the hawks with splashing sounds and sparkling drops. Bird baths can also be another source of food, as an active bath with many visitors can attract a raptor's attention as another hunting area.
- Shelter: Raptors favor large, stable perches from which to spot prey as well as sheltered areas where they can roost after a large meal when they need time to properly digest. Snags are great options, as are any large, deciduous or coniferous trees that provide sufficient perching space. Raptors may also perch on fences, deck railings or other suitable sites in the yard, or even on the roof of a house, shed or garage.
- Nesting Sites: Raptors will use the same large, mature trees for nesting that they favor for perches and shelter. Branches should be wide and stable to support raptors' larger nests, and a variety of larger nesting material such as branches and twigs should be available for resident raptors. Some smaller raptors, such as kestrels and screech-owls, will nest in boxes that have suitable dimensions and large enough entrance holes.
More Tips for Attracting Backyard Hawks
Attracting hawks is difficult, but it is not impossible. If hawks are in the neighborhood but haven't yet made an appearance in the backyard…
- Keep the yard quiet so the raptors are not disturbed. These are patient birds that will lie in wait for their prey, and they need a suitably quiet, bird-friendly place to wait.
- Minimize pruning or sculptured, heavily groomed landscaping that does not look natural. Raptors will be more at ease in a native-looking habitat, and that habitat will also support more prey raptors need.
- Avoid rodenticides or insecticides that eliminate raptors' food. Furthermore, sick or dying prey is easier to catch and feeding on a contaminated mouse or insect will poison the raptor.
- Take steps to protect pets from raptors, since a small dog, kitten, rabbit, guinea pig or similar pet is just as likely to become prey as any squirrel, mouse or backyard bird.
- Work to protect backyard birds from hawks. While this may seem counterintuitive, it does give backyard birds added protection. A hunting hawk is more likely to pick off weaker, less intelligent prey, thereby strengthening the backyard flock.
- Do not shoo away hawks after they have fed in order to encourage backyard birds to return. Raptors need time to digest their meal, and if they feel pressured or rushed, they are less likely to return to the same hunting grounds. Once the raptor naturally moves on, the backyard birds will return.
Attracting backyard hawks can be quite an achievement for birders, and watching these fascinating birds of prey right at home can provide amazing insights into a different part of the avian world.