As much as I love wildlife documentaries on television, I always get queasy when they focus on predators like lions and hyenas. I love learning about the life cycle and behavior of these amazing creatures, but I have a difficult time watching as one beautiful animal catches and tears apart another beautiful animal.

Yet it’s not just on TV that I watch this happen. It happens all the time around my bird feeders in my backyard, too.

We often think of bird feeding as a hobby that benefits the birds. And it is. But some of the birds that it benefits are hawks that feed on other birds. That’s because some hawks have discovered that active bird feeders — with their unnatural abundance of wildlife — are an easy place to find a snack.

Occasionally when I glance out the window at my feeders to see who is about, there is an unusual scarcity of birds. And the birds that are visible often look like miniature statues, frozen in place for long minutes at a time. It’s during these tense moments that I know a hawk is nearby.

It’s usually a Cooper’s hawk, whose narrow wings and long tail enable it to maneuver quickly through the forest and capture fast-moving prey like songbirds. And their affinity for small birds is why they appear at bird feeders so often.

Glancing out my back window last week, I saw a burst of motion out of the corner of my eye. Appearing as if out of nowhere, a Cooper’s hawk swooped over the roof and dove at my feeders like a stealth bomber. In that brief moment, the congregating songbirds were forced to make a life or death decision – should I fly away and hope to outrun the intruder, or should I freeze in place and hope it doesn’t see me.

Those that froze made the better decision. A male nuthatch stopped in its tracks on the trunk of a maple tree, head pointed downward like he was about to tumble to the ground. A like-minded downy woodpecker was perfectly positioned on the underside of a branch and out of view of the marauding hawk. And a tufted titmouse appeared to me to be in full view but was ignored or unnoticed by the hawk.

The rest of the birds that had been at the feeders took off in a storm of feathers and alarm calls, probably hoping that the hawk was homing in on one of the others. A flock of goldfinches at the thistle feeder flew away en masse to confuse the hawk in a tornado of yellow and black bodies. But one goldfinch reacted just a little slower than the others. That’s the bird the hawk targeted, and that’s the bird the hawk ate for breakfast.

I know that many people are uneasy when a hawk is seen around their feeders, and they want to discourage the predators from visiting. But hawks have to eat too, and they play an important role in the food chain by consuming the ill and injured. So it’s better if we simply appreciate the opportunity to get a close-up look at wildlife doing what wildlife does. Like when we watch those public television documentaries.

It was about 10 minutes before the nuthatch and the woodpecker and the titmouse felt safe enough to move again. And soon after, the goldfinch flock returned to the thistle feeder. To them, it was just another day. 

Naturalist Todd McLeish has been writing about wildlife and the environment for more than 25 years.