Cooper’s Hawk – A Bird Eating Bird

Hawks are very difficult to approach. This one was by a forest-service water trough in North Heglar Canyon. He seemed cooperative, and so I crawled on my belly and got very close to take this picture. He’s a young hawk and perhaps that is the reason I was able to get quite close. He was frequenting the area in hopes of catching other birds that were coming in to drink.

Cooper’s Hawk & its smaller look-alike, the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, are both predators that feed on other birds. “Sharpies” feast on the smaller species while Cooper’s will take birds the size of doves. Their falcon-type, streamlined bodies make swift pursuit possible. Exceptionally maneuverable through trees, they really “zoom” after their prey. We have an extensive bird feeding set-up in our yard, and these two hawks hang around in our trees. They make surprise attacks, scattering birds in all directions, as they swiftly appear out of nowhere. The reason why bird feeders need to be situated close to cover, is so a quick dive into a protected area is possible.

These two species are classified as Accipiters. These are medium-sized hawks with slender bodies, long tails, and short wings. These attributes give them great maneuverability in the tree habitats in which they reside. Cooper’s is 14” to 20” long. “Sharpies” are 10” to 14” long. Another difference is that the Cooper’s Hawk has a rounded end to its tail while Sharp-Shinned tail is squared.

Although we hate disturbance at our bird feeders, the appearance of one of these predators is always exciting. They are only doing what they are programmed to do. They are not nearly as great a menace as are the many stray house cats that we are plagued with – or the dogs that feel free to frequent our yard.

Bullying: Big isn’t always the bully

We sat by a tree that had a hawk resting in it. However, it wasn’t getting much rest. There was a Western Kingbird (which is, perhaps, 5% of the hawk’s size) that was bullying the bigger bird. Imagine how it would be to be a hawk, and to always have a tiny little bird pecking at you. The kingbird didn’t want that hawk in that tree. But it didn’t end there. When the hawk flew, the small bird wasn’t satisfied. It couldn’t leave well enough alone, but stayed right on the hawk’s tail without let-up. I have also seen other smaller birds, like Red-Winged Blackbirds, exhibit the same behavior. It doesn’t matter whether they mob the big bird as a group, or go after it singly.

It reminded me of my high school days. Being of large frame, I seemed an irresistible target for two classmates to torment. Was the fact that I was big, and they were small the stimulus? I don’t know. I could have easily turned and wrecked havoc on them. But foreseeing the possible complications, it was not worth the trouble. Perhaps that hawk felt the same way – who knows?

Pictured is a Ferruginous Hawk. It is the largest American Hawk. It is one of two hawks that have feathers that go down its legs to its feet. The other is the Rough-Legged Hawk. Its dorsal and leg feathers are reddish, but we recognize it by the great amount of white on its ventral surfaces. It is a species of the open country of our west, and its winter habitat is similar to its summer haunts. Standing stubble is habitat for rodents that make up a large part of the hawk’s diet and is favored. This raptor will also take birds, reptiles, and some insects; but mammals comprise 80 to 90 percent of the menu.

Ferruginous Hawks have been used as a falconry bird. Its flight is active with slow wing beats much like an eagle. It soars with wings held in a dihedral plane. Hovering or low crusing over the ground are also used as hunting techniques.

Ferruginous Hawk at rest on a fence post

At Rest on a Fence Post

SWAINSONS HAWKS: Long Distance Migrators

From Idaho to Argentina is quite a flight, even for an airplane, but that is where this hawk goes each winter. Swainson’s Hawks love rabbits and ground squirrels and open country is where the hunting is best. They trade their niche here, each winter, with the Rough-legged Hawk –who comes down from the far north each late autumn.

Look for the tan bib and for some white around the chin, and don’t confuse it with the Red-tailed Hawk, who has a belly band. This raptor is tamer and easier to get close to than others. When driving in open country, they can often be seen perched on roadside posts. We like to visit the Centennial Valley of Montana every September. The new crop of hawks have fledged by then and many kinds are scattered across the upper Red Rock Lakes area. Swainson’s are well represented among the offerings.

This is a western hawk and arrives here in April and leaves in September. It may hunt from a tall perch but usually soars to spot prey. It will also take snakes, frogs, birds, and small rodents. Young hawks eat a lot of grasshoppers and crickets while learning to care for themselves. Nature has an ingenious adaptation for predatory birds. The fledglings are half again heavier than the adults when they leave the nest. This extra weight is lost as they learn to hunt.

Swainson’s Hawks are monogamous and return to the same nest every year. The nest will usually be in a tree next to farmland or next to a riparian (streamside) area. Four white eggs are laid and they require 34 to 35 days to incubate. The babies will fledge one month later. In two years the immature hawks will be ready to breed.

When in open country, keep your eyes alert and listen for a drawn out “skreeee”. Perhaps you might see this bird.

(Surveying the landscape from a north Heglar Canyon road post)