Hawks Aloft Inc.
PO Box 10028
Albuquerque, NM 87184
Phone: 505 828-9455
Fax: 505 828-9769
E-Mail: gail@hawksaloft.org

Logo: Hawks Aloft Inc.

Frequently Asked Questions

Browse through the questions here to learn more about birds and see if your inquiry is listed below. Don’t see your question answered here? You can submit your inquiry here. Our experts are happy to answer your questions about all species of birds, not just raptors!

Cooper’s Hawk – image by Doug Brown

  • Can a raptor carry away/eat my pet?
  • How do birds migrate?
  • What do hawks eat?
  • What’s that hawk at my feeder?
  • How many species of hawks are there?
  • How do I stop hawks from visiting my feeder?
  • Eagle FlDo raptors eat corn?

Can a raptor carry away/eat my pet?

As pet-owners ourselves, we share your concern for the safety of your pet. Raptors hunt a variety of prey, including rodents, birds, rabbits, snakes, and insects. Large raptors, such as Red-tailed Hawks and Great Horned Owls, can attack and kill small pets. We have received dozens of inquiries about dogs and cats weighing anywhere from 6 to 60 pounds. There is no specific cut-off weight at which your pet’s safety is guaranteed. If the size of your dog or cat is similar to or not much larger than naturally occurring raptor prey, there is a risk, not just from predatory raptors, but also from urban coyotes.

That being said, there are many urban myths about hawks or owls attacking and carrying off cats and dogs.  Neither hawks OR owls can carry off more than their own weight.  Large raptors such as Red-tailed Hawks and Great Horned Owls can weigh up to four pounds; thus niether of these birds could lift more than a four pound animal from the ground.  The most common urban nesting raptor, the Cooper’s Hawk, primarily preys on birds and other very small mammals, such as squirrels, or young cottontail rabbits.  A large female Cooper’s Hawk can weigh just over one pound; thus the most it could pick up would be a one pound animal.   Here are some links to other urban myths proven to be false.

Eagle Flight and Other Myths
Snopes:  Fact Check

We recommend that for animals less than 15 pounds, that you supervise all of their outdoor activities and that cats be kept indoors at all times.  Regardless of if your small pet is accompanied with a larger dog, or if it is sporting a kevlar or reflective vest–your pet is still fair game for predators like hawks, owls, and coyotes.

CATS: There are several good reasons to keep cats indoors. Outdoor cats are threatened by disease, vehicles, and harassment from larger animals, such as dogs and coyotes. These threats are a greater cause of mortality than raptors. Additionally, outdoor cats are responsible for killing millions of wild birds every year. For more information on this subject please visit the American Bird Conservancy/Cats Indoors Program.

DOGS: For very small dogs (less than 15 pounds), we recommend supervising all outdoor activities. Larger dogs are at less risk due to attacks from raptors, but urban coyotes present a danger to all outdoor animals. Dogs should never be allowed to roam free. Additional protection can be offered by providing an outdoor shelter or covered run.

How do birds migrate?

Many raptors migrate seasonally to more favorable climates. In general, these movements are linked to the availability of food. Most small birds such as water birds and songbirds also migrate. Some birds survive year-round in one location, often by utilizing a variety of food resources at different times of year.

Most small birds migrate at night to avoid predators such as raptors. Hawks migrate during the day, generally over land, utilizing updrafts or rising columns of air called thermals. Raptors gain lift inside a thermal without flapping and then glide to another thermal. This enables them to migrate in an energy-efficient manner, primarily by gliding and not by actively flapping their wings.

Most raptors migrate over land. Large bodies of water do not produce strong thermals and are generally avoided. This effectively funnels most migrant raptors through Central America, a narrow land bridge. Because of this phenomenon, flocks of several thousand raptors of many different species can be seen during migration in many Central American countries.

What do hawks eat?

All raptors are carnivorous and eat only meat. Different families of raptors catch and consume a variety of prey. Accipiters such as the Cooper’s Hawk, primarily feed on birds, but also can take small mammals like cottontail rabbits and squirrels. Falcons generally eat other birds, such as small songbirds, medium-sized birds such as rock pigeons, or even larger birds such as ducks and waterfowl. Hawks and owls typically prey upon ground dwelling mammals such as mice, voles, rats, squirrels, and rabbits. Fish make up a large proportion of the Bald Eagle’s diet. Some species such as the Osprey, a fish-eating specialist, eat only one type of food.

Many small raptors are termed “insectivorous” due to the high percentage of insects in their diet. Although all raptors are strictly carnivorous, the diet of any one individual may vary. While these predators may feed on animals we find cute or fun to watch, predation is a natural part of the food chain.

What’s that hawk at my feeder?

We often receive questions regarding smallish, gray-brown birds that are observed preying upon small birds at feeders. The bird described is almost certainly a Cooper’s Hawk or Sharp-shinned Hawk. Both are members of the accipiter family; forest dwelling birds that are designed to chase prey through dense vegetation. They have long tails that act like rudders to steer with, and short wings that help them fly in confined areas. The plumage is very similar in both species, so identification is difficult.

Over 95% of the diet of the Sharp-shinned Hawk is small birds, but only about 50% of the diet of a Cooper’s Hawk is small to medium-sized birds, such as the American Robin and Mourning Dove. Cooper’s Hawks also eat mammals such as squirrels and cottontail rabbits.

How many species of hawks are there?

This seemingly easy question is actually quite complex. First of all, we have to define the word “hawk.” In North America, the word hawk is used to describe both soaring hawks (Buteos) such as Red-tailed Hawks, and forest hawks (Accipiters) such as Cooper’s Hawks. In Europe, however, the soaring hawks are commonly called buzzards. For ease of answering this question, we will use the North American terminology.

Hawks are part of the Accipitridae family, of which there are 238 species worldwide, and 28 species in North America. This family includes kites, harriers, hawks, and eagles. Hawks comprise 17 of these 28 North American species. Additionally, there are 4 species of eagle, 7 species of falcon, and 22 species of owl in North America. These figures include both common North American residents, and a few species that make rare, but well documented visits to North America.

How do I stop hawks visiting my feeder?

It is difficult to value predatory birds, particularly when they feed on the songbirds that depend on your backyard as a food source. Predation is a necessary part of nature, and predatory raptors mostly prey on weak, aged, injured, or incautious animals. Juvenile raptors often hone their hunting skills near backyard bird feeders where there is a reliable source of food. The life of a raptor is challenging and as raptors become more efficient at capturing prey, these animals evolve better techniques to avoid being captured. Mortality is high among young raptors. As many as 75% of young raptors often do not find enough food, and die within their first year.

Predation of songbirds is a necessary part of the natural life cycle, and “survival of the fittest” in action. There are no easy fixes to prevent raptors from coming to a backyard feeder, other than removing the feeder. If a raptor is frequenting your feeder, stop filling the feeders for about a week. The hawk may move on to other feeding grounds and the songbirds will return once you start filling the feeders again.

Do raptors eat corn?

Juvenile raptors, particularly Northern Harriers, will “play” with corn cob pieces in fields after the harvest. They are not eating the corn but will harry the field then drop down as if capturing a meadow vole, and go through behavior motor sequence of taloning, dispatching, and biting. They will fly off with the piece, sometimes drop it and “recapture” it. They seem to enjoy this behavior which is most common in the fall. They select cobs that are broken in pieces about the size of a meadow vole.

This harrying-capture-kill motor sequence is, perhaps, part of a developmental phase as they perfect their hunting style or technique. Since animals learn adaptive strategies and also learn from one another, it is possible that they do this for fun at times when the prey base is sufficient and they can afford the metabolic cost, that is, the act of practicing hunting skills outweighs the metabolic cost. It can easily look like the hawks are hunting and eating corn! We also have observed juvenile Cooper’s Hawk catching, killing, and shredding pine cones as they hone their hunting prowess.