The Native North American Cooper's Hawk, a Crafty Bird of Prey
All hawks are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which strictly prohibits the capture, killing, or possession of hawks without a special permit. They are definitely not “game” birds. They are birds of prey but they play an important role in nature, although many of them are still the unintended victims of the progress of man.
Hawks, when they are flying, often strike the wires along the roadside and others die after eating animals that have been poisoned (in an attempt to control their numbers). One of the greatest threats to hawks is the plate-glass window. Because they are used to woodlands, they are completely oblivious to reflective surfaces. In their minds, when they see a window, they are seeing whatever is reflected outward, regardless if it’s a tree, a building or another bird. Their expectation is that they can usually fly right through it. Many of them are killed and the ones that survive are usually badly injured.
A Cooper’s hawk is part of a group called accipiters, which are long-tailed raptors with rounded wings. It is those characteristics white enable them to maneuver swiftly and masterfully through dense vegetation. Cooper’s hawks (Accipiter cooperii) are native to the North American continent and found from Southern Canada to Northern Mexico.
We feed a lot of birds here in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, and hawks are frequent visitors to our backyard. We keep lots of dense cover planted close by for the small birds so they are able to make quick getaways when hawks are in the area. Our Leyland cypress tree has rescued many birds from the clutches of a Cooper’s hawk’s impressive talons.
Although Cooper’s hawks do migrate, only the residents up North are usually aware that of their absence, as most of the ones down South are replaced by the ones migrating from the North.
Cooper’s hawks are quite stealthy, so if you want to see one, you are simply going to have to keep your eyes peeled. They are often overlooked in flight because they are somewhat smaller than other hawks. Be on the lookout for their flight pattern, which is flap-flap-glide (rapid wing-beats alternating with brief glides), along with their remarkably long tail.
The constantly-moving eyes of an adult Cooper’s hawk are red. The adult hawks have solid gray chests barred (speckled) with reddish-brown spots. Their long tales, rounded at the ends, are barred gray and black with a white band at the tip. Immature hawks have yellow eyes, with brown across their backs and brown streaks across a white chest.
The eyes of Cooper’s hawks, common with most predatory birds, face forward affording them good depth perception when hunting and catching their prey at high speeds. Their hooked bill allows them to tear the flesh of their prey. During their flight, these hawks will display a long, barred tail and short, rounded wings. They beat their wings very quickly enabling them to maneuver heavily wooded areas in search of their next meal.
Cooper’s Hawk Appearance Similar to a Sharp-Shinned Hawk
A Cooper's hawk has short, rounded wings set farther back on their body than those of a much similar-looking Sharp-Shinned hawk. Also, their heads are larger and their gray caps are darker and more prominent than those of the Sharp-Shinned hawk.
Usually, in the fall, the white tip of the tail of the Cooper’s hawk is wider than that of the Sharp-Shinned hawk, although experts admit that they have trouble distinguishing between these two hawk species.
A Sharp-Shinned Hawk
Their Meals of Choice
Cooper’s hawks love to make a meal of a large number of birds, including robins, jays and juncos although I witnessed one recently claim a large Eurasian black-collared dove right out of our back yard. When the hawk struck the dove, it was hit so hard that there were dozens of feathers flying about, knocked completely off the prey. They are also known to eat squirrels, lizards, mice and some larger insects.
According to some studies, most of their prey is made up of young birds and mammals that are less likely to have developed escape skills. Often seen soaring across the skies, most of their hunting is planned along specific routes (like our backyard). They are often seen sitting on nearby perches waiting for their unsuspecting prey to land in an open area.
The most impressive escape from a Cooper’s hawk that I have witnessed was performed by a Woodhouse scrub jay in our yard. He was eating beneath a locust tree as the hawk dove down toward him after being perched on our back brick wall. In a split second, the jay flew straight upward into the heart of the locust tree and hid behind part of the trunk. The hawk looked around, but couldn’t see the jay, so he returned to his perch. The jay never moved at all in the tree and after about 10 minutes, the hawk left the area...without his planned lunch.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the jay in the tree and was certain he would eventually fly out only to be picked up by the talons of the hawk, but luckily it didn’t happen. The Woodhouse scrub jay is a regular visitor to our yard and we would hate to lose him.
A Cooper's Hawk Locked on Lunch
Many Cooper’s hawks migrate northward to breed. They are monogamous and many pairs will mate for life. The pairs breed once a year and raise one brood during that time. The choice of the nesting site is up to the male, but the female is the actual nest-builder.
During their courtship there are flight patterns that display the wings held in the shape of a deep arc. Often, the male will fly around the female hawk displaying his under-tail feathers to her. The male will raise his wings above his back and fly with a slow, rhythmic flapping. Usually, the mating flights will occur on bright, sunny days during mid-morning, beginning with both birds soaring high on the air as it warms and rises.
Courtship flights are common with both the male and female participating. The male will usually dive toward the female, following with a very slow chase. Both birds, alternating with glides, will move about with slow and exaggerated beats of their wings.
Because they are territorial birds of prey, they will fiercely defend the territory around their nests.
The breeding season for a Cooper’s hawk begins early in the spring when they begin building their nest out of sticks and twigs (lined with bark, down and/or conifer needles). Usually, the female will lay from 3-6 eggs that are blue to greenish/white and spotted. The female is responsible for incubating while the male provides food for her.
Cooper’s hawks belong to a group of birds whose eggs mostly hatch during week five. Once the eggs hatch, both parents are responsible for the care of the young fledglings that will leave the nest after about a month (whenever they learn to fly). The young birds are supplied food by the parents until they learn to feed themselves.
Almost all Cooper’s hawks will not breed until they are about two years old or older.
Incubating Her Eggs
More Facts About Cooper's Hawks
- The female hawks often weigh approximately a third more than the male hawks.
- They belong to the family Accipitridae, which includes various species of hawks, vultures, eagles, harriers and kites.
- The Cooper’s hawk is named for William Cooper, a New York scientist whose biologist son James Graham Cooper was the namesake of the Cooper Ornithological Society, which was founded in 1893 in California and operated until 2016.
- The eye color of these hawks changes from bluish-gray in nestlings to yellow in young adults. Their red eyes are not developed until they are older adults.
- Were highly persecuted earlier this century, (an estimated 30-40% of all first-year birds were shot annually).
- Cooper’s hawks, as recently as the early 1990’s, were listed as either endangered, threatened or of special concern in 16 Eastern states. They are now very common, however, in many Western states.
- Book of North American Birds (1990), Reader’s Digest Association
- Forshaw, Joseph; and Steve Howell, Terence Lindsey and Rich Stallcup (1995), Birding – A Nature Company Guide, Time-Life Books
- Kaufman, Lynn Hassler (2000), Birds of the American Southwest, Rio Nuevo Publishers, Tucson, Arizona
- Fisher, James; and Roger Tory Peterson (1988), World of Birds, Crescent Books, New York
© 2018 Mike and Dorothy McKenney