Birds of Curtis Park: Fierce Cooper’s hawks make meals of other birds in neighborhood

Our neighborhood’s fiercest resident birds are Cooper’s hawks, with long tails and short, rounded wings that enable them to capture prey in wooded areas where rapid acceleration and the ability to turn and stop quickly are advantageous. This lifestyle takes a toll: Up to a quarter of Cooper’s hawks have healed fractures of breast bones, likely from collisions.

Cooper’s hawks feed mainly on medium-size birds, such as robins, jays and flickers, but also take larger and smaller birds. They also eat small mammals, such as chipmunks, tree squirrels, ground squirrels, mice and bats, and sometimes eat reptiles and insects. They hunt by stealth, approaching prey through dense cover and then pouncing with a rapid, powerful flight. You are most likely to see one ambushing prey at a bird feeder.

As is common in predator birds, the male Cooper’s hawk is smaller than the female. The male Cooper’s hawk builds the nest and feeds the female for up to a month before she begins laying eggs. After the eggs hatch, the male brings food and gives it to the female at a perch near the nest; she then feeds it to their young.

A pair of Cooper’s hawks has nested in a plane tree on 25th Street for the last few years. On a mid-June morning, I watched the male fly in with a California scrub jay. Both Cooper’s hawks flew to a nearby oak, where he left the prey. The female spent five minutes or so plucking every feather off the jay and then flew with it to the nest. She watched until the four nestlings finished their meal, and then flew back to her guard perch.

The nestlings arose from the nest and pranced and flapped their wings for a while until they settled back down. Cooper’s hawks can live for 20 years. Their numbers declined in the mid-20th century, possibly as a result of DDT and other pesticides. They have recovered since that time, and numbers appear stable in the western United States and increasing in the East.

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