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Bird feeder's flock draws hawks

December 29, 2008|By JEFF RUGG / Creators Syndicate

Q: I love birds. Two years ago I started with two birdbaths in my backyard. Today I have five bird feeders, including a squirrel feeder, for the different kinds of birds that visit my yard. Little by little the doves arrive to feed as well. I didn't mind; there is always plenty to go around. Two months ago, one hawk arrived and started killing the doves. This past week there were three hawks circling around. Most of the birds don't stop in my yard anymore; only a few blue jays dare to stop and feed, usually late in the evening, but the doves won't go away even after I removed all the feeders. My question is: Is there anything I can do?

A: Hawks that eat birds find the concentration of birds near feeders to be a good thing. The hawk can spend less time searching for food and is more likely to find sick, injured or weak individuals. The hunting success rate for hawks that eat birds has been researched to be less than 10 percent, so 90 to 95 percent of the time they miss. The survival rate of young hawks making it to their first birthday is around 20 percent.

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At the same time, a large concentration of birds (a mixed flock) at a feeder is more protected from all predators than when a bird is by itself or in a small flock. A hawk that eats a few sick birds from the flock helps keep the other birds from getting sick. Birds that eat at feeders are potentially healthier and more likely to escape being chased.

Hawks are top-of-the-line predators in an ecosystem, and they show that the area they are living in is healthier than similar areas that don't support hawks. Songbirds are in the middle of the natural food pyramid. They eat insects and seeds and they in turn get eaten. Hawks have one nest a year and at most only a few young. Songbirds often have two nests, and in warm climates three or four nests per year, and four to eight young per nesting, so without hawks and other predators, songbirds could become pests.

By taking your feeders down for a couple of weeks, you will change the feeding pattern of most of the songbirds, which in turn will change the habits of the hawks. If some of your neighbors feed the small birds, they may not go very far and the hawks may not, either. Doves have a territory that they may not leave. After a couple of weeks, put the feeders back up and see how long it takes for the songbirds and the hawks to come back. It will take more work on your end, but you could try just putting the feeders up early in the morning or overnight and taking them down at 9 or 10. Songbirds tend to eat earlier than the hawks.

At this time of year, many hawks are migrating and will just be passing through. In the south, they will be staying for the winter, so they may stay in your neighborhood no matter what you do with the feeders.

The farther a bird has to fly to shelter, the more vulnerable it is. Put your feeders near some tall shrubs. Evergreens are better than deciduous, but any are better than none. If you don't have any, then you will want to plant some. Don't put them near low shrubs that will hide cats. Don't place ground-style bird feeders near the shrubs. The shrubs will help hide the songbirds and placing the feeders away from the house will protect the hawks so they won't chase a bird into a window. A bird feeder with a wire basket around it won't protect small birds. When the hawk lands on the feeder, it will just reach inside and grab the bird.

Q: I planted my raspberry patch in a low area of the yard a few years ago. The soil is thin and clay-filled. I have some extra compost and topsoil that I want to spread in that same area, partly to raise the area and partly to make the soil better with the organic matter. Should I dig them up and replant them, or can I add the soil around the stems?

A: At this time of year, almost all plants are going dormant. In northern areas the shrubs are losing their leaves and even in southern climates most plants will go through a time where there is very little growth. This is a good time to do transplanting.

In my experience, raspberries have shallow root systems. The crown of the plant has a few stems and a couple of large roots, plus a handful of smaller roots. The crown is about the size of a medium-sized carrot. Insert the shovel and pry up. If it doesn't come up, then move around to the other side and try again.

Place the roots in a bucket of water if they are going to be planted in the next day or two. If it is going to take longer before they are replanted, wrap them in wet paper and place the roots in a plastic bag. They should stay damp but not waterlogged or else they could drown.

Spread the compost and topsoil over the bed and till it in. Mix it as deep as possible into the soil below to get a good transition for better drainage. Replant the roots at the same level in the ground as they were before.

If desired, this would be a good time to string some wires, so the raspberry canes can be kept in straight rows. This will help in harvesting, but more importantly, it will help keep them up so there is better air circulation and fewer fungal disease problems.

E-mail questions to Jeff Rugg, Kendall County unit educator, University of Illinois Extension at jrugg@uiuc.edu.

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