A Restaurant for the Birds Welcomes All

A watercolor painting of the sharp-shinned hawk by Julie Zickefoose. i i

A watercolor painting of the sharp-shinned hawk by Julie Zickefoose. Julie Zickefoose hide caption

itoggle caption Julie Zickefoose
A watercolor painting of the sharp-shinned hawk by Julie Zickefoose.

A watercolor painting of the sharp-shinned hawk by Julie Zickefoose.

Julie Zickefoose

When we feed birds, spread seeds on the ground and pour them into various feeders, we expect finches and chickadees to show up. Here in southeast Ohio, a good snow may bring 70 northern cardinals to our feeders, stunning testament to the ecological impact of our little seed restaurant.

Sometimes, though, a customer swaggers into our vegan bird restaurant, plops down and orders a steak, rare. The waitress, in her table-waiting uniform of flannel pajamas and rubber boots, is taken aback. She puts down the bucket of seed she was carrying. "I'm sorry, sir. We don't serve meat here."

"That's all right," he grunts. "I'll get it myself."

Perched on the crossbar of our feeding station, he stares me down, this pint-sized sharp-shinned hawk. He showed up here in mid-October, and he clearly likes what we're serving: goldfinch, junco, titmouse. His back is brown, broadly spangled with bright white spots; his breast streaked with teardrops of rust. His eyes are yellow; his wicked needle-tipped feet are the color of grapefruit rind. He likes it here.

About a month ago, I heard a tremendous thunk on my studio window, and looked up to see the hawk go cartwheeling off, to land clumsily in our pines. I didn't see him any more that day, but he was back the next, leaving little crimson piles of cardinal feathers on the ground .

Now the hawk has settled into a routine. He bombs around the corner of the house like a brown arrow. Startled, the flocks fly up from the feeders and ground, and sometimes a panicked bird or two hits the windows in our house. Then, he has his pick of them.

Over the years, I've had three other sharp-shinned hawks learn to use our windows to their advantage in just this way. One could almost classify it as tool using, if a sheet of glass could be called a tool. At the very least, it's a hawkish innovation.

I can hardly see out my studio windows any more. I've festooned them with dyed chicken feathers and strips of Mylar, trying to tell the birds there's danger here. But no amount of gadgetry can counter the deadly force of panic.

All over the country, sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks are becoming feeding station regulars along with chickadees, jays and juncos. Like it or not, we're feeding them, too. Seventy cardinals festooning a single backyard is an undeniably beautiful sight, enough to make a seed-toting waitress proud.

But there's nothing natural about it; but for my bird restaurant, there might be one-tenth that number. The quick talon, the hard yellow glare of the sharp-shinned hawk; the rush of panicked wings and the drift of plucked feathers beneath the birch: that's natural—a balance to the imbalance I've unthinkingly created.

Essayist Julie Zickefoose writes and paints on Indigo Hill, a private sanctuary near Whipple, Ohio.

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