The Cooper’s hawk and its closely related accipiter cousin, the sharp-shinned hawk, can be one of the most difficult birds of prey to identify. Swift and agile, this raptor is a cunning predator that can be found not only in forested areas but also in yards and suburban areas. Because this member of the Accipitridae bird family is so widespread, birders should learn to identify it properly so they can recognize it easily, and this fact sheet has everything a birder needs to do just that.
- Scientific Name: Accipiter cooperii
- Common Name: Cooper’s Hawk, Blue Darter, Chicken Hawk, Blue-Tailed Hawk
- Lifespan: 10-12 years
- Size: 14-20 inches
- Weight: 16-20 ounces
- Wingspan: 25-35 inches
- Conservation Status: Least concern
Cooper's Hawk Identification
Because Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks look so similar, it is important for birders to quickly recognize the key field marks that can separate these species. Once you are familiar with what makes Cooper's hawks unique, it is easier to tell the two types of raptors apart. The dark, hooked bill shows a yellow cere, and these raptors have broad, rounded wings and an exceptionally long tail. Males and females look similar, but females are larger than males.
The head is blue-gray with a darker cap that contrasts markedly with a paler nape. The wings and back are blue-gray. The chest and abdomen are white with heavy rufous or brown barring or streaking that is lighter toward the legs. The long tail has thick bars and prominent white tip, though the tip can quickly become worn and may not be immediately visible. The undertail coverts are white, the legs are yellow, and the eyes are red.
Juvenile birds look similar to adults but have paler yellow or red-orange eyes that gradually darken as they mature. Juvenile birds also have drip-like brown, vertical streaking on the breast rather than the barring pattern.
Birds of prey are not typically vocal, but Cooper’s hawks will use a rapid, sharp “keh-keh-keh-keh-keh-keh” call alarmed or aggressive, as well as a high pitched whistle when threatened or in distress.
Cooper's Hawk vs. Sharp-Shinned Hawk
These two accipiters can seem nearly identical, and birders will need a keen eye to tell them apart. Cooper's hawks are generally larger than sharp-shinned hawks, and are more barrel-shaped whereas sharp-shinned hawks have broader shoulders and narrower hips. The darker cap on Cooper's hawks is a key field mark to distinguish these two birds, and their legs are thicker. Cooper's hawks also generally take larger prey than sharp-shinned hawks, so identifying the bird's meal can be a good clue to which species it is.
Cooper's Hawk Habitat and Distribution
Cooper’s hawks are common throughout the United States, Mexico, and southern Canada. They are typically found in forested habitats including mountainous regions, though very dense, thick forests are avoided because these larger birds do not have as much room to maneuver. These birds can even adapt to open forested areas in urban and suburban regions, such as cemeteries, parks, and golf courses.
Northern Cooper's hawk populations in the Northeast, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and southern Canada may migrate seasonally depending on available food. Many Cooper's hawks do not migrate, however, and instead stay in their same range year-round.
Cooper’s hawks are territorial birds that can be aggressive toward other raptors, particularly sharp-shinned hawks. They are also especially aggressive near nesting sites, and will even dive at humans who approach too closely. These birds' long tails and short wings give them excellent maneuverability through forests.
Diet and Feeding
Cooper's hawks are carnivorous raptors and hunt a variety of different animals. Typical Cooper's hawk prey can include small and medium-sized birds such as finches, songbirds, starlings, quail, doves, and pigeons, as well as small mammals like mice, voles, and occasionally squirrels and chipmunks. They hunt either by flying near bushes to ambush small prey or by perching on poles, fences, or trees to wait for small birds to approach.
After catching prey, they may feed on the ground or carry their meal to a safer, more secure location. Digestion can take several hours, and the birds will sit very still during that time. After digesting, these raptors will regurgitate a pellet of inedible material such as bones and fur.
Cooper’s hawks are monogamous birds. The male builds a stick nest with a shallow cup lined with bits of bark, positioning the nest in a tree 20-50 feet above the ground. The female will adjust the nest to her liking before starting to lay eggs.
Eggs and Young
The eggs of a Cooper's hawk are pale blue or blue-white, and there are 2-5 eggs in each brood. A mated pair only produces one brood per year. Both parents incubate the eggs for 30-35 days and will feed the young birds for 27-35 days until they are ready to leave the nest.
Cooper's Hawk Conservation
While Cooper's hawks are not considered threatened or endangered, they are at risk from a wide variety of threats. Poisoned rodents can contaminate hunting raptors, and because these birds of prey are at home in urban and suburban areas, window collisions are also a grave threat. Minimizing rodenticide use and taking steps to make windows more visible to hunting hawks is essential to protect these birds.
Tips for Backyard Birders
Cooper’s hawks are one bird of prey that can be attracted to yards because they will readily feed on small and medium birds, particularly ground feeding species such as mourning doves. Leaving dead trees or poles available as perching areas will give these hawks a vantage point for hunting.
Birders who prefer to protect their backyard birds from hawks can use several different techniques to avoid attracting Cooper’s hawks. Providing shelter for feeding birds, eliminating ground feeding stations, and removing convenient perches for raptors will encourage Cooper's hawks to move elsewhere to hunt.
How to Find This Bird
Visiting suitable forest edge or open forest habitats that are rich in prey is essential to find Cooper's hawks. Watch for these birds to be resting on fences, poles, or large tree branches as they digest meals or watch for their next bite. They may also be seen darting through trees as they hunt, flying swiftly but not too high as they seek out prey.
Explore More Species in This Family
The Accipitidae bird family is a large one and includes not only hawks, but also kites, eagles, harriers, buzzards, and Old World vultures. Birders who enjoy these raptors won't want to miss these species:
- Sharp-Shinned Hawk
- Bald Eagle
- Red-Tailed Hawk