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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

The line between life and death in the natural world is razor thin.

With snow in the Saturday evening forecast, I spent the morning replenishing bird feeders. This served a dual purpose. First, I wanted plenty of food to be available if the storm was as strong as advertised. Second, I wanted to roll out of bed Sunday morning, grab my camera and photograph the feeding birds.

Rolling out of bed the next morning, it was evident the weather forecasters had been correct. And, birds of every creed, nationality and religion were actively feeding in my yard.

Grabbing camera and binoculars, I spent a couple hours bouncing from window to window, searching for the best angles and light to capture the finches, sparrows, woodpeckers, nuthatches, blue jays and cardinals.

About an hour into the exercise, the patio feeders were extremely active. Birds were pouring over the back fence, picking spilled seed from the ground, sitting atop the fence waiting their turn or attempting to chase others off the feeders.

Suddenly, a blur shot across the feeders. Birds instantly scattered in every direction. It took a second to understand what had happened, but I looked up just in time to see a sharp-shinned hawk regaining altitude at the far end of the yard.

The strafing run came up empty, but the birds took the near miss seriously.

The patio remained empty for nearly 15 minutes. Finally, a wary junco showed up. The bird seemed timid at first. It almost seemed as if all the juncos had drawn straws and this guy drew the short one. He sat in the platform feeder, somewat sheltered by the support chains, but appeared visibly nervous.

The junco picked at a sunflower seed or two, but appeared to lack an appetite. After the bird survived 30 seconds without another attack, a few more juncos appeared. They were followed by several house finch, and within minutes, the area was as busy as a popular bistro on Saturday night.

Later Sunday, staring at the dozens of birds feeding in the back yard I witnessed another attack, this time a Cooper’s hawk.

About a dozen birds, juncos and finch were feeding on the ground when the Cooper’s hawk dropped out of the sky. The hawk hit the ground hard, right in the middle of a half-dozen birds. The swiftness and ferocity of the attack were breathtaking.

The hawk hit the ground awkwardly and extended its right wing, seemingly to keep it from toppling over. The extended wing also made it impossible to see whether the hawk’s attack had been successful.

When the hawk regained its balance it flew off empty handed to a neighbor’s cypress tree. It sat there for a few seconds, possibly looking for stragglers, possibly hoping to regain its breath before flying off to another feeder.

Twice within the span of four hours, I was treated to the ruthlessness of nature. The songbirds were attracted to the feeders because ice and snow made naturally occurring food difficult to find. The predators were just as opportunistic.

In the end, I had mixed feelings about the events of the day. I enjoy the songbirds, but predators have to eat.

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LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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