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The Hawk in the Hedgerow

Cooper's hawks by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

I’m in my old stomping grounds in Princeton, New Jersey, for the holidays.  I was out for a walk with my partner Dave late in the afternoon on Christmas Day when we had the nature sighting of the week.

We were headed southeast along Nassau Street.  We stopped abruptly when a hawk flew across our path, just a few feet above the ground, and executed a crisp, right-angle turn to disappear into the yew hedge running along the sidewalk.  A fraction of a second after the hawk went into the hedge, a mockingbird flew out, flapping urgently up and away along a flight path that almost perfectly reversed the hawk’s descending route.  Dave and I looked at each other for a moment, then looked back down at the hedge.  All was still.

We stood on tiptoes to look to the other side of the hedge.  We looked at each other again.

“Did it come out?”

“No, I think it’s still in there.”

“I think so too.”  We crept slowly forward, peering into the hedge where it thinned, looking to the lawn on the far side. We saw nothing.  We closed to within five feet of where the hawk had flown into the hedge.  Still nothing.  Until, with the same swift grace with which it had flown in, the hawk emerged from the hedge.  As the bird sprung aloft, so close in front of us that we felt its wingbeats as much as we saw them, it faced us for the briefest of moments as it elegantly arced back over the hedge and up into the spreading branches of a massive pin oak in the churchyard.

The flash of the hawk’s underside showed that the white feathers of its breast and belly were marked with fine, red barring.  We had a bit longer to take in the dorsal view, with the bird’s slate-gray back and banded tail.  As the hawk flared its wings and tail to brake into a landing, we could see that the tip of the tail had a deep, C-shaped curve, edged in white.  A Cooper’s hawk.

Cooper’s hawks are one of the three species of North American accipiter (ack-SIP-pit-ur), a group of forest-dwelling hawks that are identifiable by shape and characteristic flap-flap-glide flight behavior.  With proportionately shorter wings and longer tails than that most familiar bird of prey, the red-tailed hawk, the accipiters can maneuver crisply through dense forest as they chase down songbirds.  Though they specialize in catching aerial prey—a remarkable feat—the accipiters are not averse to taking small mammals on the ground if they can get them.

The behavior that we saw, however briefly, was typical of a Cooper’s hawk.  A low-to-the-ground pursuit and a swift ambush from behind a shrub are part of the predator’s modus operandi.  The long, rudder-like tail helps a Coop steer through tight spaces, while its short wings make catastrophic crashes a little less likely.  Still, as Cornell University’s All About Birds reminds us, “Dashing through vegetation to catch birds is a dangerous lifestyle. In a study of more than 300 Cooper’s Hawk skeletons, 23 percent showed old, healed-over fractures in the bones of the chest, especially of the furcula, or wishbone.”

Yikes!  Knowing that makes it all the more amazing to see these birds in action.  To get a sense of what I mean when I describe the maneuverability of an accipiter, check out this BBC video of a captive goshawk (a larger cousin to the Cooper’s hawk) flying through tight squeezes in slow motion:

Pretty incredible, huh?  But back to our suburban Cooper’s hawk.

Identifying Cooper’s hawks can be a little tricky, as their close relatives, sharp-shinned hawks, look almost identical in plumage and are very similar in overall shape.  Though sharp-shinned hawks are smaller than Coops, both species exhibit marked sexual dimorphism: the females are noticeably larger than the males.  While a female Coop would dwarf a male sharp, a smallish male Cooper’s hawk and a big female sharp-shinned hawk can be disconcertingly similar in size.  Project FeederWatch has some great tips about what to look for to distinguish the two species, but that C-shaped, white-tipped tail we saw on our bird supported our impression that we were looking at a Cooper’s hawk.

Cooper’s hawks are good birds to know, for those of us living in the Lower 48.  Though they evolved as forest dwellers, Coops have adapted fairly well to suburban development.  Though they have declined in abundance in the last century, Coops remain a fairly regular sighting in leafy developed areas across the U.S.  I’ve come to think of them as “feeder hawks” because they’ll sometimes hang out near bird feeders, where they wait to ambush songbirds.  I’ve seen them snag house finches in San Francisco, California, and house sparrows in Burlington, Vermont.  Here in New Jersey, they’re currently listed as threatened.

Our Cooper’s hawk sat still in its oak tree for ten minutes or more, ignoring the starlings hanging out on a nearby church steeple.  Dave and I stayed on the sidewalk watching the bird, as pedestrians went past.  No one asked us why we were staring fixedly into a tree.  Too bad: I would’ve loved to have had a chat with a stranger about hawks.

Want to learn more about birds of prey?  Let me know in the comments, and I’ll blog about raptors more often!  In the meantime, check out these other online resources:

  • Hawk Mountain Sanctuary has a nice introductory page on raptor identification.
  • The Raptor Research Foundation, a professional organization for raptor biologists, hosts an overview of the raptors of the world with some lovely photos.
  • The Golden Gate Raptor Observatory (where I used to volunteer) recently tagged some hawks with miniature GPS units; you can follow their movements online.
3 Comments Post a comment
  1. toughlittlebirds #

    How cool to witness that behavior. Amazing that the hawks can fracture their wishbones and survive – you would think the bones near the flight muscles would be pretty essential!

    December 29, 2012
    • cathybell #

      And when you think about how flexible wishbones are, it’s even more amazing to think what kind of an impact must have gone into breaking them. Ouch. Makes me wonder, though: if anyone reading this does raptor rehabilitation, I’d be curious to know how many birds come in with that type of injury, and what the prognosis is.

      December 29, 2012
  2. FeyGirl #

    Fascinating… I never knew this about them! I often see them hanging near bird feeders, of course, waiting for their meals… But never this!

    I wonder how long these injuries take to heal in the wild, since this seems to be a typical and naturally occurring tendency — hunting mechanism — for them. Like you say, what the prognosis is from rehabilitators who may see it.

    December 29, 2012

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