by Kyle Sweet, Florida Master Naturalist
Seldom seen on the islands, but photographed at The Sanctuary Golf Club, the Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii, is a Sweet Shot that might be more often seen in northern states that many of our Sanibel residents travel to for the summer. However, it is a great bird of prey to look out for throughout the year on the islands and throughout Southwest Florida.
An Accipiter hawk, which in North America also includes the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Northern Goshawk, the Cooper’s hawk can be seen prowling above the forest edge or field using just a few stiff wingbeats followed by a glide. Flight patterns are a great way to learn birds from a distance and narrow down the wide array of birds that are in our area.
The Cooper’s hawk is a skillful flier that feeds mostly on small birds and small mammals, including chipmunks, squirrels and mice. Often hunting amongst dense cover, which can easily injure the bird, it pounces on prey with rapid, powerful flight but certainly doesn’t mind taking the easier hunting route if available and with your participation. If you enjoy backyard birding with a bird feeder, there’s a chance that you will also attract the attention of a Cooper’s Hawk and your backyard birding experience can take on a twist. With powerful flight they can easily prey on smaller birds on and around bird feeders. If a Coopers Hawk takes claim to your back yard, the best solution is to just take the feeders down for a few days and the hawk will move on to their forest habitat or maybe even a neighboring feeder.
Male Cooper’s Hawks are much smaller than the females, which can be dangerous to the male when the female is hunting for smaller prey. Male Cooper’s hawks are submissive to the females, maybe due to the dangerous size difference. In courtship, the two fly together in search of a nesting site and once a site is chosen, the males build the nest. They then provide nearly all of the food to the female, even before she begins laying eggs. Feeding continues for both the female and young for the next 90 days before the young fledge, which is around 4-5 weeks.
The Cooper’s Hawk has very distinct color and pattern differences at different life stages, which can make them easily confused with other hawks. A good birding guide will give great examples of these varying stages and be very helpful. As with all birds, please observe from a distance, especially if the bird is perched and enjoying a meal. We all know that there’s nearly nothing worse can being disturbed during a meal and our feathered friends probably feel the same. Keep your eyes out for the Coopers hawk, a stealthy, strong hunter that might just be seen in your backyard soon.
Cool Facts :
Cooper’s hawks have become fairly common urban and suburban birds. Some studies actually show their numbers are higher in towns than in their natural forest habitat.
A Cooper’s hawk captures a bird with its feet and kills it by squeezing. They’ve even been known to drown their prey, holding a bird underwater until it stops moving.
Four Keys to ID
1. Size and Shape -Medium – sized hawk with the classic Accipiter shape which is broad, rounded wings, broad shoulders, large head and very long rounded tail.
2. Color pattern – Adults are Blue – Gray above with reddish bars on underparts and thick bands on the tail. Juveniles ( as photographed ) are brown above and sharply streaked with brown over white on the upper breast.
3. Behavior – The fly with a flap-flap-glide pattern and rarely flap continuously. They have skillful attack maneuvers to surprise their prey.
4. Habitat – Widely varied. Wooded habitats from deep forests to vegetated subdivisions and backyards.