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.
Common Name: Cooper’s Hawk, Blue Darter, Chicken Hawk, Blue-Tailed Hawk
Scientific Name: Accipiter cooperii
Scientific Family: Accipitridae
Appearance and 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 the species. Once you are familiar with what makes Cooper's hawks unique, it is easier to tell the two types of raptors apart.
- Bill: Dark, hooked, yellow cere
- Size: 14-20 inches long with 25-35-inch wingspan, long tail
- Colors: Brown, black, gray, white, rufous
- Markings: Genders have similar colors and markings but females are larger. The head is blue-gray with a darker cap that contrasts 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 and the legs are yellow. The eyes are red in mature birds, but juvenile Cooper's hawks have paler yellow or red-orange eyes. Juvenile birds also have drip-like brown streaking on the breast rather than the barring pattern.
Foods, Diet and Foraging
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.
Habitat and Migration
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 populations in the Northeast, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas and southern Canada may migrate seasonally depending on available food, but many Cooper's hawks do not migrate.
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 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.
Cooper’s hawks are monogamous birds and a mated pair will produce one brood of 2-5 pale blue or blue-white eggs each year. The male builds a stick nest with a shallow up lined with bits of bark, positioning the nest in a tree 20-50 feet above the ground. 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.
Attracting Cooper’s Hawks
Cooper’s hawks are one bird of prey that can be attracted to backyards 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.
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.
- Sharp-Shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)
- Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)
- Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)