Nature Notes: The Cooper’s hawk, a riveting bird of prey

Young Cooper’s hawks often learn to hunt by trial and error, and probably miss their prey more times than they get them, according to scientists. (Photo by Bill Hobbs)
Young Cooper’s hawks often learn to hunt by trial and error, and probably miss their prey more times than they get them, according to scientists. (Photo by Bill Hobbs)

If I could affix a nickname to this striking bird of prey, I’d call it the “flying torpedo.”

Its real name is Cooper’s hawk, Accipiter cooperii, a bird common to Connecticut, renowned for its maneuverability and hunting skills.

John James Audubon revered the Cooper’s hawk’s hunting prowess, writing in 1826, “These marauders frequently attack birds far superior to itself in weight.” Audubon was referring to birds as large as pheasants that cooper’s will hunt.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, “All About Birds,” is another admirer, noting “Cooper’s hawks are one of the world’s most skillful fliers, able to scuttle through dense canopies of forest, chasing down songbirds.”

Maggie Jones, executive director of Denison Pequotsepos and Coogan Farm Nature and Heritage Center, also has high esteem for this bird of prey.

“Cooper’s hawks tend to overpower their victims, making quick kills,” she said. “They are also very adept at going after rats, flying around foundations. You can’t buy a better rodent killer.”

My own first encounter with Cooper’s hawks riveted me.

In a flash, one swooped into my yard, flushing a flock of house sparrows feeding on the ground near my bird feeders. The sparrows immediately scattered, fleeing to a small spruce tree nearby.

What fascinated me next was the Cooper’s hawk’s determination.

In hot pursuit, the hawk landed at the base of the evergreen, then marched around the tree, on foot, making feints into the lower boughs, to flush one or two sparrows.

If any sparrow fled, it would be almost certain death for them, due to the brute strength and speed of the Cooper’s hawk, I thought.

But the sparrows would have none of it. Wisely, they stayed in the tree, and the cooper’s hawk eventually gave up and flew away.

That little drama, however, convinced me: cooper’s hawks are freaky good at hunting prey.

When I shared this story with Jones, she said a friend of hers witnessed a Cooper’s hawk pursue a flock of sparrows into a group of empty lobster pots, stacked on a dock.

The hawk then clambered about on the pots, stopping every now and then to reach down between the slats of wood and nylon webbing to try and extract a sparrow from the depths with its long legs and knife-edged talons. One can only imagine the terror the sparrows felt!

“Cooper’s hawks probably miss more than they get,” Jones later said.

Pete Dunne, a nationally known birder and author of a wonderful collection of short stories called “The Wind Masters, The Lives of North American Birds of Prey,” sheds light on why Cooper’s hawks are so determined to pursue their prey.

In a story about a pair of Cooper’s hawks, Dunne writes, “To remain healthy, the bird needed to ingest about 70 grams of food per day — the numeric equivalent of seven black-capped chickadees, six black-and-white warblers, two or three gray catbirds, or one robin.”

“In so far as it requires less time and energy to capture one robin-sized bird rather than six warbler-sized birds, cooper’s hawks favor larger prey, birds up to the size of pheasants, and mammals as large as hares,” Dunne continued.

In North America, there are two groups of hawks: accipiters and buteos. Birds in the subfamily Accipitrinae have short wings and a long tail; examples are cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks and northern goshawks.

Birds in the Buteo group are distinguished by their broad wings and broad tails, enabling them to soar and hover over open fields and wooded areas. These hawks hunt a variety of rodents, rabbits, squirrels, snakes and small birds. Examples include red-tailed hawks, Swainson’s hawks and red-shouldered hawks.

BIRD TIP:

If you put your feeders away from windows and near shrubbery, songbirds, like the cardinals, tufted titmouse, white-throated sparrows and gold finches have a greater chance of avoiding collisions with windows. I've found that if you put your feeders away from windows and near shrubbery, songbirds, like the cardinals, tufted titmouse, white-throated sparrows and gold finches have a greater chance of avoiding collisions with windows and fleeing into the shrubs when those amazing accipiters zoom by.

Bill Hobbs is a resident of Stonington and a life-long birder. For comments, he can be reached at whobbs246@gmail.com.

Unsure how to handle his prey, the young Cooper’s hawk here leaps at the squirrel, but without success. The squirrel survived the encounter. (Photo by Bill Hobbs)
Unsure how to handle his prey, the young Cooper’s hawk here leaps at the squirrel, but without success. The squirrel survived the encounter. (Photo by Bill Hobbs)

Tips for putting seed out for songbirds

Over the years, I’ve found that if you put your feeders away from windows and near shrubbery, songbirds, like the cardinals, tufted titmouse, white-throated sparrows and gold finches have a greater chance of avoiding collisions with windows and fleeing into the shrubs when those amazing accipiters zoom by.

 

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