When we think of wildlife in a backyard garden, most of us picture rabbits, squirrels, sparrows, chickadees, a variety of insects, and maybe the odd raccoon. Fierce, soaring hawks and mysterious, sharp-eyed owls are not what we expect in an urban yard. And yet several birds of prey are surprisingly common in cities and towns.
Few things are more thrilling than catching a glimpse of a hawk or an owl in your very own neighborhood. If you understand a little bit about raptors’ habits and habitats, you can create the kind of yard that will attract them—and increase your chances for a close encounter.
Attract raptors to your yard. Protecting and restoring natural plant communities is the best thing you can do to attract raptors. Plants provide habitat for prey species and shelter for raptors. Raptors need large, mature vegetation (such as trees and cacti) for nesting. Some smaller species are cavity nesters, laying their eggs in old woodpecker holes or places where branches have broken off. Larger species typically use nests made of branches piled in the tops of trees. Some species don’t build their own nests, but take over those built by crows or other raptors. Dead trees, called snags, work as well as living ones, so leave them standing if they pose no danger.
Learn to identify hawks and owls. Hawks and owls are the most likely raptors to show up in your yard. Depending on the species, they feed on rodents, snakes, insects, and other birds. They have extremely keen eyesight, hooked beaks, and sharp talons. However, despite their similarities, hawks and owls have key differences and are not closely related.
Hawks are active during daylight hours. Owls, on the other hand, are adapted for nocturnal living. Owls have special feathers that muffle the sound of their flapping wings, and their flat, round faces funnel sound into their ears, allowing them to locate prey in the dark.
Look for raptors in urban areas. Here’s a list of the raptors you’re most likely to see in your yard and garden:
Both eastern and western screech owls are common in cities and towns. These small owls nest in tree cavities, but will also use a properly mounted nesting box. (See Resource Guide on page 62 for sources.)
These large hawks live in every type of ecosystem, from forests to deserts to grasslands. They are easy to spot because they hunt voles, rabbits, and squirrels while perched in trees along highways.
Great horned owl
Great horned owls are the nighttime counterpart to the red-tailed hawk, living in similarly diverse habitats. They can tackle large prey and, lacking a good sense of smell, are one of the few regular predators of skunks. They often use the same nests as red-tailed hawks but avoid competition by laying their eggs much earlier—sometimes in the middle of winter—and completing their nesting process before hawks begin theirs.
This swift hawk feeds primarily on small birds and is a regular visitor to gardens with bird feeders. Seed-eating songbirds get an easy meal in such gardens, and so do bird-eating hawks.
One of the tiniest raptors (only about 10 inches long), kestrels will nest in the same tree cavities or nesting boxes used by woodpeckers. Males sport colorful slate-blue wing feathers that are easily recognizable.
Fast Facts About Raptors
• Peregrine falcons can reach speeds of up to 186 miles per hour while stooping (diving) for prey.
• The desert-dwelling Harris’s hawk is known for hunting prey in packs, like wolves or lions.
• Some populations of screech owls bring live blind snakes into their nests. The snakes feed on parasites that plague the owls’ nestlings.
• In the first half of the 20th century, bald eagle populations declined dramatically because of habitat destruction and the pesticide DDT, which causes eggs to crack before hatching. After DDT was banned and the species protected by U.S. law, bald eagle numbers rose dramatically. This year the bird was “delisted,” which means it’s no longer considered endangered or threatened.
David Mizejewski is a naturalist, television personality, and author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife.