By Tom Dennis
Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii
Did you know that some birds are serious bird watchers? I decided to write this article on the Cooper’s Hawk when my wife Laurie, recently came across one of my old poems. I titled it “Bird Watching with a Cooper’s Hawk” and it reads:
I’m feeling cocky on my perch
My cap is snappy true
I too enjoy the passerines
My dinner to subdue
The majority of our small-to-medium sized birds are generally called passerine birds and some of them are preyed upon by a small group within the raptors (hawks, eagles, and falcons) that feed almost exclusively on passerine birds. The Cooper’s Hawk is a local example of one of these bird eaters and a brief study will reveal the special features that make this creature a beautiful and successful predator. You may have grown up hearing this species called the “Chicken Hawk”, especially if your family lived in the country and raised poultry.
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Like most raptors, the Cooper’s Hawk is relatively drably colored; “the better to eat you with”. They are dark blue-gray on the back and upper wings, have a black “cap” on the head and, the tail is light gray with dark gray banding. Their underparts are dull-white with rust-orange barring. The eyes are yellow to light orange in yearlings and progress to dark-orange and red with age. Their overall length averages from 14 to 18 inches and they average just over 12 ounces in weight. I find it interesting that east of the Mississippi the birds are larger and heavier (up to 25 ounces). Proof for me that big is beautiful and we can blame our better environment and put an end to this silly dieting! The appearance of the sexes is identical in color however, the females are significantly larger than the males. They are designed to catch birds and have a sharply hooked bill, short rounded wings, a long tail, sharp talons, and most importantly they have forward facing eyes. The Cooper’s Hawk is most reliably distinguished from the similar looking Sharp-shinned Hawk by its rounded tail feathers vs. the square-edged tail feathers of the Sharp-shinned.
Cooper’s Hawks are found throughout most of North America from southern Canada to Mexica and into northern Central America. They are common in our area and we are on the northern edge of their year-round range. They prefer large tracts of woodland for breeding and raising young however they are common around human populations, especially where our bird feeders make easy prey for younger hawks. They typically feed on small to medium-sized birds including American robins, other thrushes, quail, blackbirds, pigeons and doves; often taking birds that are unwary, and less fit. You can offer some protection to your feeder birds by placing feeders near thick shrubs and trees. However, these amazing fliers depend on a surprise attack and fly full speed through trees and relatively dense shrubs. This behavior comes at a risk as proven by a recent study where over 300 Cooper’s Hawk skeletons were investigated and 23% revealed healed fractures in bones of the chest. It’s important to point out that predators serve a critical role in the balance of nature and if it makes you feel better, these birds often supplement their diet with mice, chipmunks, squirrels, and bats. They are also merciful in that captured prey is squeezed repeatedly until death, instead of biting the prey to kill it in the fashion of falcons.
I hope you learn to appreciate all of our birds and understand that when you feed the birds, you often feed those that you didn’t intend to feed!
If you wish to learn more about birds you are welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot on the first Monday of the month, October through May at 6:45 PM. Please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, and be sure to friend us.
Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, and naturalist.