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Cooper's hawk is songbird assassin

Cooper's hawk is a songbird assassin

February 15, 2015

Jim McCormac

Few visitors to backyard bird feeders are as polarizing as the Cooper’s hawk.

Many songbird lovers have recoiled in horror when one of these feathered furies has barreled into the yard and plucked a cardinal from the air.

The Cooper’s hawk is the common backyard plunderer of songbirds.

Bad attitudes toward the magnificent raptor go way back. Early ornithologists disparaged them, adding legitimacy to efforts to soil the bird’s reputation and provide fuel for hawk shooters. Said William Dawson, author of the 1903 book Birds of Ohio: “THIS is the real culprit! Punish him who will (for its) . . . evil deeds/"

Waxing anthropomorphic about Cooper’s hawks is irresistible. The hawk possesses the strategic genius of Genghis Khan, the slick agility of Wayne Gretzky and a punch like Mike Tyson.

Cooper’s hawks feed almost entirely on songbirds. Their short rounded wings and long rudderlike tail allow the birds to maneuver like stunt planes. Females are much larger than males and will sometimes take down squirrels. A hawk on the hunt might sit quietly in a tree, awaiting prey. Other times, the bird will explode into a flock of potential victims, using shrubs, houses or other obstacles to hide its approach.

An adult Cooper’s hawk is beautiful. The upperparts are shaded a rich bluish-gray, and colorful orange barring stripes the underside. The head is capped with black, as if the hawk has donned a hoodie, and under that are glaring red eyes (stare into a Cooper’s hawk’s eyes and you’ll be struck by the absolute fearlessness within). Young Cooper’s hawks are clad in muted browns with bold smudgy streaking below.

While common today, Cooper’s hawks’ populations plummeted in the mid-1900s. Harvesting by gunners played a role, but environmental contamination by DDT was worse. The pesticide interfered with raptor reproduction cycles. Following the ban on DDT in 1972, Cooper’s hawks began to recover.

When one feeds the songbirds, one also feeds Cooper’s hawks. One invites them into the yard by providing a buffet of cardinals, jays, sparrows and such. Rather than excoriating the hardworking hawk for plying its trade, one should instead appreciate the hawk for what it is. A Cooper’s hawk is the pinnacle of avian engineering, an indomitable spirit of the wild in the midst of our largely domesticated lives.

As do all high-end predators, Cooper’s hawks play a vital role in creating equilibrium among populations of lesser beasts.

Some people just don’t like the way they go about it — although many folks who deride a Cooper’s hawk for doing what comes naturally would defend the nonnative house cat that slays backyard birds.
Cats are beautiful and have their place — in the house. Leave the bird-hunting to the natives such as the majestic Cooper’s hawk.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at


Dave Lewis said…
We had a visit while we were doing the GBBC Saturday. We didn't see him catch anything, but he's always welcome in our garden.
Lisa Greenbow said…
Fabulous photo. I love seeing these beauties checking the garden.
Lisa Rainsong said…
Your closing paragraph is perfect. We have an immature female Cooper's Hawk who hunts our back yard throughout the day, and I've seen her on one side of the window while the cats watch from the other side - as it should be.
Anonymous said…
Just yesterday I watched one finish off a bird right next to our safflower feeder! I missed the kill, and the Cooper was standing on it in pretty deep snow, so no victim ID was possible. I was amazed to see it swallow both legs with the feet, whole! It was a beautiful creature indeed. Kara in Jerome Township, Union County
Lauranne Waller said…
I'm in Fairfield County and see these gorgeous creatures frequently. But since I'm not agreat bird watcher yet, I often have a difficult time distinguishing between Cooper's Hawk and sharp shinned hawk when they're in flight. Hints?..This is one of the best nature photos ever!
Anonymous said…
wonderful, beautiful bird.

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