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Cooper's Hawk

We had a hawk recently buzz our bird feeder. The birds at the feeder scattered for cover, and from what I could see, it was a failed effort by the hawk to get a meal. It happened so quickly that it was tough to positively identify the hawk, but it probably was a Cooper’s hawk.

The Cooper’s hawk, along with the sharp-shinned hawk, harrier or marsh hawk, and goshawk are types of hawks called accipiters. Accipiters are woodland hawks that have a long tail and short rounded wings. Their flight pattern generally consists of quick wingbeats followed by gliding. Most of the hawks we see in North Dakota are of a type called buteos. Buteos are large hawks with broad wings and a broad, rounded tail. They typically soar overhead in a circular fashion. Common buteos include the red -tailed hawk, Swainson’s hawk, and ferruginous hawk.

The Cooper’s hawk is a small hawk, 14-15 inches long, with a wingspan of 24-35 inches. They have rather short and rounded wings, with a rather long tail. The adults are gray above with a dark cap, rusty barred breast, and rounded tail.

Sharp-shinned hawks are similar and difficult to differentiate. They are a bit smaller, 9-14 inches long with a wingspan of 17-22 inches, and the tail is more squared as opposed to rounded. Based on what I have seen and read, the Cooper’s hawk is more frequently observed in our area. However, both hawks are known to come into rural as well as urban areas where the activity at bird feeders provide opportunities for a meal.

Arthur Cleveland Bent in his Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds described the flight of the Cooper’s hawk as…”a low, swift, dashing flight. It surprises its prey by a sudden, swift dash, pouncing upon it before it has a chance to escape. Its short wings and long tail give it such control of its movements that it can dart in and out among the branches of the forest trees with impunity, or dodge through the intricacies of thickets were its victims are hiding.”

That makes me think of that saying about pilots: “There are some old pilots and some bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.” Dodging around tree branches and other obstacles in pursuit of a meal has its costs. One study of 300 Cooper’s hawk skeletons found that almost one fourth had the markings of fractured bones.

So, if you happen to see a small hawk go streaking past your bird feeder this winter, there is a good chance it was a Cooper’s hawk

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of “Natural North Dakota” and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005 he has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for North Dakota’s newest newspaper, the Lake Metigoshe Mirror. His columns also appear under “The Naturalist” in several other weekly newspapers across North Dakota.
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