Secretive Cooper’s hawk pays visit to neighborhood

Posted Aug. 13, 2010, at 5:57 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.

As I rounded the corner and started up the slight hill, the silhouette of a bird on top of a telephone pole immediately caught my attention.

It was crow-sized, but it certainly wasn’t a crow. Its stance was too upright, and it lacked the long, heavy beak of a corvid. I knew it had to be a raptor, but what kind I wasn’t sure. I’d need to get a view from a different angle.

I detoured away from the bird’s perch into a small parking lot, coming around so that the front of the bird was in view and no longer in silhouette. Still, the light was fading and I wasn’t quite close enough to get a clear look; so I tried to pick out other characteristics that would give me a clue to the bird’s identity.

Already I had ruled out the possibility of merlin; this bird was larger than these small falcons typically are. And after having the privilege of spending three summers observing a pair of merlins raise a family, I could spot their profiles anywhere. Also, merlins have a certain streamlining to them. They are built for direct, swift and deadly in-air pursuit of their avian prey.

The bird I was observing didn’t present as angular and severe a profile. It was far too large to be a kestrel and too small to be a peregrine; so that ruled out falcons. It was a hawk — and again, size was a big clue. Too big to be a sharp-shinned hawk, I thought, although this is not always a reliable indicator because of the sexual dimorphism among birds of prey — in this case, it refers to differences in size; female raptors are sometimes significantly larger than males. As a result, a female sharp-shinned hawk can be larger than a male Cooper’s hawk.

It definitely was too small to be a goshawk — and the habitat was all wrong. No, this had to be either a sharp-shinned hawk or a Cooper’s hawk. Both are known to frequent backyard bird-feeding stations in their pursuit of songbird prey — what is probably their equivalent to a “fast food” drive-through.

The mystery hawk remained for another minute atop its perch. I could see it peering intently into the shrubbery and trees around the pole, cocking its head with quick, almost mechanical movements. With startling suddenness it lifted off and flew across the street with sure, rapid wing beats. As it passed I had a glimpse of the rounded tip of its tail — a sure clue it was a Cooper’s hawk, as a sharp-shinned hawk’s tail is square-tipped.

As the hawk disappeared around the corner of a building, I thought about the adaptations that allowed it to hunt the way it does. It has shorter, more rounded wings than does a falcon, which enables it to twist and turn on a dime in pursuit of its winged prey, often through heavy cover. Pete Dunne, writing in “Hawks in Flight,” explains this ability perfectly: “If a Cooper’s hawk is released in front of a seemingly impenetrable maze of branches, the bird will melt away with no more than a vibrating twig or two to mark its entry point.”

This wasn’t the first time I had seen a Cooper’s hawk around the neighborhood, and I wondered whether it was the same bird. I almost always catch sight of it at or near dusk. So, in the days to come, I will be prowling the area, hoping for another glimpse of this secretive hawk.

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