Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Hawk’s Dietary Habits

Dear Bird Folks,

How often do hawks need to eat? I know that they eat a variety of prey, but some prey is larger than others. Is a single mouse going to keep a hawk satisfied for an entire day or will it need to continue hunting? And what if, instead of a mouse, the hawk catches a squirrel? Will that keep it full for an entire day or maybe two? If a meal is large enough, can a hawk go more than a day without hunting? – Ann, Wakefield, MA


I’m wondering, Ann,

I’m wondering why you asked this question. Are you trying to win some kind of weird bar bet about hawks’ dietary habits? Did someone wager that a hawk could go for a month on a single squirrel? Or perhaps you are starting a specialized Weight Watchers group just for raptors. Let’s see, eating a mouse counts as two points, five points for a chipmunk, and a whopping twenty-seven points for eating an entire jackalope at one sitting. But who hasn’t done that?

Well, whatever the reason for your question, I’m glad you asked it. Many people don’t realize that birds really do get full. The feeder birds we see chowing their brains out at 8:00 AM probably won’t be the same birds we see at two hours later 10:00. The early birds fly off to some protected area to digest and gossip, while a new group of similar-looking, but different birds, hit the feeder.

For small birds, with their high metabolism, resting time is short. Their tiny bodies don’t allow them room to store much food and they must get back to eating fairly quickly. This is good news for people who enjoy watching birds at their feeder and even better news for people like me who sell birdseed. And yes, Ann, I know you asked about hawks. I promise I’ll get to that next. But since nobody has asked about feeding birds for a while I wanted to slip that in. I have mortgage payments, you know.

For the most part, raptors don’t need to eat as often as the smaller birds do. As you suggested in your question, one good meal may be enough for an entire day, or even longer. Also, as you noted, hawks eat a huge assortment of prey. Red-tailed Hawks can make a nice lunch out of: worms, crickets, snakes, lizards, bats, birds, mice, squirrels or rabbits. (I know you didn’t mention any particular hawk, Ann, but I’ve decided you were thinking about red-tails, since they are so common. Plus, they are one of the few hawks I actually know a little about.)

Obviously, there is more meat on a squirrel than there is on a mouse. A hawk has to catch and eat several mice if it wants to be full. The exact amount of food a hawk needs to make it through the day depends on the time of year and the weather conditions. In order to survive the frigid northern winters, hawks must generate additional body heat. More heat means more food. Their food consumption drops during the summer, which is good news for the hawks since they like to look fit and trim for the beach. However, the good news doesn’t last long. Once the baby hawks start hatching, the adults shift their hunting skills into high gear, which means just about every small creature in the area had better have its life insurance policy paid up.

During the breeding season, if a parent hawk catches a rabbit, or some other large prey, it simply shares the catch with the family. However, after the fledglings have moved away an adult hawk will have no one to share a freshly caught rabbit. How sad. Not wanting to waste the delicious bunny the bird will eat as much as it can until its stomach is filled and there’s no more room. This is when the hawk switches to plan B. Many birds hide or cache extra food for later, when the midnight munchies strike. But red-tails usually don’t hide surplus food. Instead, they stuff extra food into their crop. The crop is a weird little storage room that’s just off the esophagus, between the mouth and stomach. It’s like having a built-in doggie bag. Extra food is swallowed and stored in the crop until the stomach is able to make room for it. Between the stomach and the crop, a hawk may indeed eat enough food at one sitting to keep itself satisfied for several days.

This begs the question: If a hawk isn’t hunting, what does it do with its time? It probably does what we do when we have extra time – nothing. When birds aren’t feeding, roosting, mating or migrating, they do what is referred to as “loafing.” You probably don’t need a definition of loafing, Ann, especially if you’ve seen any of my employees, but bird loafing is much like our loafing. They basically rest, digest their food, do a bit of preening and wonder why the kids don’t call. See, just like us.