For the Birds Radio Program: Sharp-shinned Hawks

Original Air Date: Aug. 25, 1986

Bird-eating hawks are passing through Duluth in big numbers right now. (3:33)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Sharp-shinned Hawk)

A lot of birds have been hitting windows lately–that means Duluth’s annual hawk migration is underway. On good days, when the wind is out of the northwest, the first migrants have been cruising over Hawk Ridge. The most common hawk seen in August is the Sharp-shinned Hawk–and not just at the Ridge. Sharpies can be found wherever there are small birds to eat.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are accipiters–hawks specially adapted for hunting birds on the wing. They have long tails, for quick maneuverability; and short, wide wings, for rapid flight in dense woodlands. Males, about Blue Jay size, usually migrate before the larger females–when the warblers and other tiny songbirds are beginning to move. They catch their prey in flight with their strong, sharp feet–called talons. They are excellent hunters, which explains why the instant one is sighted in a neighborhood, all the birds at a feeder scatter out of sight in a flash.

Of course, just as Sharp-shinned Hawks are adapted for killing little birds, those same little birds are equally-well adapted for getting away–which means that there are a lot of hungry hawks flying over Duluth every fall. Duluth Audubon Society’s banding station at Hawk Ridge handles thousands of sharpies each year–each one lured into a net by a house sparrow or starling fluttering about safely behind the net. Banders weigh and measure each hawk, and place a metal ring from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on its leg before they release it. Sometimes a small sample of blood is drawn for study, and sometimes other information is collected.

This banding operation has been going on every fall since 1972–it is considered the most efficient banding station in the United States. In some years over 4,000 hawks and owls have been captured, processed, and successfully released by the volunteers and professional banders. Because Sharp-shinned Hawks hunt as they migrate, often flying at or below tree level, they are the species the banders most often capture.

What happens to the hawks after they are released? Few of them are ever captured or found again, but the ones that are provide important clued about the peculiar migratory habits of sharpies. Some don’t go very far–they are found wintering in Wisconsin, Iowa, or even Minnesota–but a couple of the sharpies banded here in Duluth have been recovered wintering in South America!

Handling so many thousands of birds, the banders discover some oddities. Over the years, several captured hawks have had a missing foot or eye–often well enough healed that it was obvious that the bird had been hunting successfully for some time. Duluth’s banders have even recaptured a one-eyed hawk two years in a row. Once Dave Evans netted a hawk that had a large branch sticking out its breast and back. The wound appeared healed–he cut off the protruding ends of the stick and applied antiseptic before releasing the bird. And, believe it or not, that same bird was back two years later! Maybe that’s why my sympathies are as much with the hawks as with their meals.

(Recording of a Sharp-shinned Hawk)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”