A little after lunch a I checked the feeders again and noticed some House Sparrows in the neighbour’s lilac tree. A larger, darker bird was obscured by the branches, but as I was studying it, it flew out into the open. I was surprised to identify it as a female Brown-headed Cowbird, a member of the blackbird family that should be in Florida or Mexico by now. Slightly larger than the House Sparrows, she had a thicker bill, a uniform brown plumage, and a heart-shaped tail. I rarely see cowbirds in my yard, but last August a juvenile appeared with some House Sparrows. Perhaps this was the same one, and perhaps it thinks it’s a House Sparrow, for she flew off when the sparrows did. I don’t think the sparrows are part of the same flock that regularly visits my feeder, because they hang out in the cedar tree two doors down, while the sparrows and cowbird appeared to be heading somewhere much further. I do encounter a few different sparrow flocks regularly on my walk to the bus stop in the morning and suspect these birds belong to one of the those flocks. When I entered the sighting into eBird, it flagged the Brown-headed Cowbird as rare; this is probably the only time I’ll ever see a rare bird in my suburban yard, and that’s only because it is a common bird lingering well beyond the date it should have left.
A little later that afternoon, I looked out and saw the White-breasted Nuthatch ambling along the back fence. The back feeder was swinging, making me wonder if it had just taken some sunflower seeds. I was happy to see it, as I’ve now seen one or two in either the front yard or backyard almost every weekend since October 29th. Prior to their arrival, the only other one I’ve seen in my yard was way back on September 27, 2014. Interestingly, I started seeing one in the subdivision on September 22nd. I hope these birds stick around.
This morning when I awoke I noticed a good number of juncos beneath the feeder just as it was getting light. I counted eight of them, the most I’ve seen at one time in a while. A few hours later I noticed nine House Sparrows outside, and spent some time checking the neighbouring trees to see if the Brown-headed Cowbird was present. I didn’t see the cowbird, but a few juncos, a Mourning Dove, and three chickadees were visiting the feeders. Then a large brown bird rushed in and landed on the fence, causing all the birds to scatter.
The long tail, short wings and yellow eye indicates it’s an accipiter rather than a falcon. There are two species likely to visit backyard feeders, and adults of both species have horizontal reddish-brown stripes across the breast, with very little white, and red eyes. Juvenile accipiters have vertical brown stripes on a white chest and yellow eyes; as they mature, the eyes turn red. While the Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk look remarkably similar in the juvenile stage, as does the Northern Goshawk – their forest counterpart – the adults are more easily identifiable.
Given how thin and sparse the brown streaks are, leading to an almost completely white belly, and given the bird’s size, this is a Cooper’s Hawk, one of the more common birds of prey to show up at feeders. She (I think it’s a she based on size) spent a good five minutes on my fence, peering into the cedar bushes in my neighbour’s yard to see where the smaller birds had gone. I don’t often see Cooper’s Hawks in my neighbourhood, let alone my yard; maybe only one a year. It makes me wonder what goes on in my yard when I’m not home!
She gave up on the first cedar bush in the yard behind mine, then flew over to the other fence to check the smaller cedar tree in the yard next door. The large size and thick legs also are characteristic of Cooper’s Hawks. Sharp-shinned Hawks are generally smaller (though female sharpies can overlap with male Cooper’s) with pencil-thin legs. I rushed downstairs to get a better photo of the bird as it sat just outside my living room window, shooting through the glass window as I didn’t want to scare her away.
The hawk stuck around for about 10 minutes – it must have really been hoping to catch a meal at my feeder. Unfortunately my cat scared it off when he jumped up into the window to see what I was watching.
I was thrilled to be able to watch the hawk for as long as I did, for they are normally shy and fly off as soon as they realize they are being watched. I am also happy to see such a variety of birds still coming to visit; it won’t be long before winter sets in, leaving only the hardiest birds to remain.