October 2021 Birds Need Plants Photo Contest

Oh, look, who should stealthily appear!  © Juanita N. Baker, Ph.D.

Cooper’s Hawk   Accipiter cooperii

by Juanita N. Baker, Ph.D.

What penetrating eyes we see! This immature Cooper’s Hawk blends in with the Live Oak tree and waits, keeping watch in all directions, for any ready prey. When we built our house amongst these unique twisting oak trees on the St. Sebastian River, we did not know we were essentially building a bird blind. We tried to take as little land as possible so built our house on top of the garage which means we live on the second floor. Climbing stairs is our exercise for the day.  We put up feeders at the edge of the open back porch along with pots of varied native plants and kitchen herbs. These bring in the little birds. If my eye catches movement as I look up from my computer while sitting at our dining room table, I might see a unique visitor. I move slowly to pick up my camera or binoculars, always at hand, to catch a photo from inside our house.

One July day this visiting immature predator, likely the most common backyard hawk in America, appeared. Unlike its smaller look-alike cousin, the Sharp-shinned Hawk that breeds up north and are not in Florida for the summer, the Cooper’s Hawk breeds in Florida. This youngster flew in and landed on a branch just 40 feet away.  Characteristic features of both immature Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks are the penetrating yellow eyes (slightly larger in Cooper’s), the rufous-tipped brown back and secondary feathers of the wings that make progressively varied size and curving artistic patterns, and highlights of irregular white spots on their wings. Both have alternating dark- and gray-striped long tails, better to maneuver in tight forest spaces to quickly capture prey (mainly birds: doves, cardinals, and jays, but pesty rodents too).  Both have tails ending with a white band. However, the Cooper’s is usually wider than a Sharpie’s but here shows it’s feather white band is worn down to a thin band. Another distinguishing mark is the Cooper’s rounded tail’s end due to graduated lengths of tail feathers. However, the Sharpie’s similarly long, banded tail has feathers of the same length, so appears squarer-looking when perched. A Cooper’s head is larger, appears flattened and slopes down to its beak, and its crow size distinguishes it from the smaller Sharp-shinned Hawk (grackle-sized with smaller head) with a rounded forehead making it look cuter, baby-like.  When identifying any bird, remember to look for the key features and varied behaviors each species exhibits!

REFERENCE: Rosenfield, R. N., K. K. Madden, J. Bielefeldt, and O. E. Curtis (2019). Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), version 3.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.coohaw.03

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