Cooper’s Hawk

This November I was able to add a new bird to my list. I was particularly pleased about this sighting as it was not only a new bird, but a new bird of prey. In my own backyard, literally. Thank goodness for the strong fall breezes removing most of the leaves from the trees. I had only been sitting out for about fifteen minutes, relaxing and waiting for the birds to get used to my presence and return to the feeders, when they all called out this horrible racket. As the Cooper’s Hawk settled down on a nearby branch, the trees erupted with objections from every other feathered and furred creature in the vicinity. The Blue Jays attempted to intimidate the predator with there loudest shrieks. The Squirrels making their panic noise, which is a cross between the sound of a dry-heave and nails on a chalkboard. The House Sparrows were also adding their sweet voices, not so much to intimidate as to deter the would be predator by demonstrating their greater numbers. Together these sounds and calls created the most inharmonious chorus ever heard. And they just kept it up!

At first I thought they were disturbed by the neighbor’s cat, who I had seen rushing from the middle of the next yard a moment earlier. This is a fairly regular occurrence. Later I realized that the cat was also panicked by the Hawk and running for his life. Not to sound too mean, but I took a slight bit of satisfaction that for once the cat was being terrorized, instead of terrorizing. But when the cat appears the ruckus soon calms down. With the cat gone, I started looking for another reason for their unhappiness. And that was when I spotted it. To have that kind of power to have just your silent presence on a branch cause so much commotion.

I knew instantly that this magnificent creator was not a Red-Tailed Hawk, the species of hawk seen very often in our town, especially in the nearby park. The darker color of the wings was my first indication that this bird was different. A quick look at its tail and rump confirmed that it was not the Red-Tailed Hawk (pictured on right below). The hatch marks of the feathers along the belly were also differently patterned and more heavily colored.

The Cooper’s Hawk is considered a medium sized hawk. They measure between just over a foot to twenty inches. The females are slightly larger than their male counterparts, but this is their only difference in appearance. The Cooper’s Hawk has a white chest, which appears rusty due to the closely placed hatch-marks on his belly feathers. Its back and wings are a slate gray and its tail is also gray and long, with a rounded end and a series of black bands running along the width of its tail. The face of the Cooper’s Hawk made the greatest impression on me. A fierce intelligence radiates from its red eyes. The top of its head is capped with dark gray feathers, while its cheek is covered in a rust colored blush, which further helps to emphasize the bird’s eyes. The Cooper’s Hawk looks almost the same as the Sharp-shinned Hawk except it is larger and has rounded tail where the Sharp-shinned has a squared tail.

The Cooper’s Hawk has shorter wings than some other hawks, a feature that helps them steer through trees. They apply ambush tactics when hunting and have been known to spend time at or near feeders, hoping to pick off an unsuspecting songbird. They are mostly silent, calling only to or from their nests. This quiet adds to their aura of danger and menace. While their diet is mostly comprised of smaller birds and small mammals, they have been known to eat reptiles and amphibians in a pinch.

While this species of hawk is present in New Jersey year round, some birds do migrate to Mexico and other warmer areas in the south. While their population was badly affected by DDT pollution in the 1950s-1980s, today they are a common bird. Spotting them however is often by chance. Knowing that I feel doubly lucky that I chose that morning to enjoy a bit of the autumn sunshine.

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