Beware the beautiful Cooper’s hawk

By Marilyn McKinley

OSU Ohio certified naturalist volunteer

Not too long ago I looked out the window hoping to see a few colorful birds dining at the feeders. At first, it was the usual birds. But what I saw instead took me by surprise. A Cooper’s hawk was proudly perched on the top of the bank of feeders. I thought this was a rare occurrence, but came to find out, it happens quite often.

The Cooper’s hawk, aka “chicken hawk,” is present year-round in most of the U.S. This predator is medium-sized – about the size of a crow, so it’s hard to miss. Their home nests may be found in deep woods, parks, and even backyards. They feed mostly on birds and small mammals.

The males are 8 to 14 ounces, 14 to 18 inches long and have a wing span of 17 to 20 inches. The female is almost twice as big, with a wingspan of 24 to 37 inches. Although they are grey and brown in color when you see them sitting, they can appear white from underneath when you see them flying. This is a distinctive sight when you see them swooping in on a target in suburban and urban areas.

The female lays three to five eggs. They are a pale bluish-white. The female spends most of her time on the nest. Only when the male brings her food does she get to eat. But they are monogamous couples; many mate for life. The young are in the nest for a quick four to five weeks.

They eat mostly robins, doves, pigeons and even jays are favorites because they are groundfeeders. In a research study in Nebraska, they have been recorded as feeding on English starlings for the most part, rather than native songbirds. They also like chipmunks, squirrels, mice and bats. They will eat reptiles and insects.

The hawk hunts by stealth, moving from branch to branch, listening and watching, then with a burst of speed overtakes its prey. You sometimes see them cruising low to the ground, approaching from behind to take the prey by surprise. Not surprisingly, their movements are rarely heard. They can swiftly maneuver through treetops in pursuit of other birds. They can easily sneak up on their prey. Suddenly there will be a few silent wingbeats followed by a glide. The most likely place to spot this bird is the edge of the forest or field, but they do take up residence in wooded neighborhoods.

How do you deal with a Cooper’s hawk in your yard? If it seems that suddenly there are fewer or maybe no birds at your usually crowed feeders, you might suspect a hawk is nearby and is doing what comes naturally. If you choose not to share responsibility for attacks or death of your feeding birds, take these steps: First stop feeding. Don’t worry – your bird friends will find food elsewhere and will come back when they feel safe.

If you spot a hawk either in the yard or soaring above, take the feeders down for about two weeks, or the hawk may still think small birds are stopping by to feed. Hawks are patient birds, but the Cooper will get hungry long before that and pursue his meals elsewhere.

To learn more about the Cooper’s hawk, go to

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