anne_mikolay_2012_120On a sunny, unseasonably warm day earlier this week, I opened the back door to allow my chihuahuas to run off-leash in my fenced yard. Teddy, the chihuahua mix weighing in at eleven pounds, raced out the door first, followed by the aptly named Tiny Girl, wiggling her three pounds as fast as her miniature paws could carry her.

Neither dog got very far.

No sooner had Teddy reached the tree closest to the house than a hawk swooped down alarmingly low – so low, in fact, that I clearly saw its markings. I snatched Tiny up immediately, and even before I called to Teddy, he sensed danger and ran back inside the house. I shudder to think what could have happened had I permitted the dogs to run unsupervised!

While I am a backyard bird enthusiast, admittedly, I know next to nothing about birds of prey. This incident was a warning; it's time to learn and spread the word about the dangers of local raptors.

Hawks, eagles, falcons, and owls are raptors, or birds of prey. Unlike nocturnal raptors like owls, hawks are diurnal creatures and hunt for food during the day. Their strong talons and hooked beaks are designed for capturing and shredding a diet that consists of rabbits, mice, small birds, squirrels, snakes, and raccoon sized animals, including...unattended small pets! 

Apparently, there are sixteen hawk varieties in New Jersey. Powerful, majestic birds with a wingspan of four feet, hawks can spot a mouse one hundred feet away and soar at 120 miles per hour to kill it. Contrary to popular belief, hawks do not live in the forest and instead frequent the edges of heavily wooded areas, building nests in the highest trees. Backyard trees will not shield small wildlife and tiny dogs or cats from birds of prey; a hawk's wings are flexible and can bend at right angles allowing it to weave between trees at will.

What can you do to prevent hawks from visiting your yard? Unfortunately, not much.

An internet search revealed the preventative suggestion of hanging CDs with fishing line from tree branches in hopes the CDs will reflect the sun and blind the hawks, hardly a promising solution. While eliminating  natural hawk perches, like dead trees and shrubbery, would be more effective, it does not guarantee a predator-free backyard, nor does removing bird feeders. In fact, nature itself prevents a predator-free environment. Hunting hawks, after-all, are merely fulfilling their natural purpose.

The only thing that will protect small pets from raptors, then, is diligence. Thus, I scan the skies for danger before I let my dogs play outside, and I am always with them. While there are those who believe a hawk would not, could not, attack a small dog, I don't want to be the one who foolishly proves them wrong.