Cooper's Hawk


cooper's hawkUnlike larger raptors that spiral lazily above Oklahoma's wide-open spaces, the Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii) keeps a low profile in woodland edges and thickets. Along with its preference for thick cover, this species' swift flight and rather non-descript markings make sighting and identifying this diminutive bird of prey a bit difficult. Those fortunate enough to see a Cooper's hawk are quickly taken with its low-key elegance and understated displays of power.

Also known as the "blue darter", the Cooper's hawk is about the same size as a crow. Its distinguishing characteristics include a large head, long tail and short, rounded wings. Its back is slate gray, and its cream-colored underside is rippled with rust-colored bars. The tail is striped on top with brown and gray, and underneath with gray and cream. Perhaps this bird's most identifiable marking is its white-tipped tail feathers. Females are larger than males, but adults of both sexes are known for their ruby red eyes.
In flight, the Cooper's hawk resembles the closely related sharp-shinned hawk. Both fly straight and fast, and their flight pattern is characterized by strong wing strokes and short glides.

Unlike the Cooper's hawk, however, the tail of the sharp-shinned hawk is shorter
and more squared at the very end, and it also has a black tip. The Cooper's hawk's longer tail gives it great agility for hunting small birds and mammals in the restricted confines of its woodland home. This environment requires quick braking, tight turns and quick climbs, and the Cooper's hawk is perfectly designed for such deft maneuvering.

When hunting, the Cooper's hawk usually flies within a few feet of the ground and swiftly pounces on unsuspecting prey. Although it uses this method mainly for catching birds, this species also eats snakes, lizards, frogs and insects. One individual was even documented eating minnows while perched near a shallow pool.

Though uncommon throughout its range, the Cooper's hawk can be found in Oklahoma year-round, especially in eastern wooded areas. It is migratory, and the possibility of seeing one increases during the winter. This species' breeding range covers the entire state, so it's also possible to observe nesting activity.

A Cooper's hawk will nest once a year between mid-April and mid-June. The male locates possible nest sites and start building in hopes of attracting a female. Even though a mated pair may use the same breeding territory year after year, they usually build a new nest each season. Their nest consists of a stick platform, between one- to three-feet wide, built close to the trunk of a tree in the lap several main limbs. Nests are usually 20 feet or more off the ground. The female usually lays a single clutch of four to five greenish-white eggs. Both parents attend to the eggs for the 24-day incubation period.

Often hatching on alternate days, the fledglings can immediately see and take scraps of food from their parents. The immature Cooper's hawks will leave the nest 26 days later, looking much like their parents except with golden eyes, mottled breasts and white bellies. They will mature in two to three years and may live for 10 to 15 years.

Because of its speed on the wing and comparatively dull appearance, most experienced birders are satisfied simply to marvel at this bird's power and agility. In keeping with the refined presence of this woodland raptor, that's exactly as it should be.

Next time you're in the woods and you see a shadow sail silently through the trees, it's not your imagination. It's just a Cooper's Hawk on the prowl.