Cooper’s Hawk

Accipiter cooperii

 By Vernon J. Poindexter

In 1828 Charles Bonaparte named the Cooper’s Hawk after William Cooper, who collected the birds that were used to describe the species.  These hawks vary from 14 to 21 inches long, with a wingspan of from 27 to 36 inches. Cooper’s Hawks are found all throughout North America.  This hawk grows to about the size of crow and females grow a little larger, preying on small rodents and birds such as chipmunks, robins, and quail.

Distinguishing a young Cooper’s Hawk from Goshawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks can be very difficult to almost impossible.  The rounded tail of a Cooper’s Hawk is a good indicator but not always accurate.   After a year old the hawk has its first molt and the dorsal plumage changes to bluish gray, with reddish barring on the breast.  The eyes slowly change from orange to a dark red to a ruby red color after several years, with some of the eastern female hawks keeping the orange color.

 The Cooper’s Hawk prefers to nest in woodland areas, but the spread of suburban areas has forced them to nest more in the city. The hawks have adapted well, using the tops of a power line poles, allowing them a nice lookout for prey. They construct a new nest nearly each year out of sticks and line it with bark.  In about four weeks there will be four to five eggs to hatch.  The female attends to the young birds while the male hunts for food.  During the winter when food is scarce they will stalk backyard bird feeders since the feeders attract many of the small birds they feed on, becoming a nuisance for many people. There are a significant number of hawks being killed by slamming into windows chasing prey.  Many residents have placed black hawk silhouettes on their windows to help prevent these accidents.  Pesticides poisoned many of the hawks in the 60s and 70s as well as the Bald Eagle and Osprey, causing a decline in their population.

Written spring 2004, as a service learning project for Dr. Gary Coté's Biology 102 class at Radford University.  Copyright Pathways for Radford.

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