I honestly cannot remember the first time I saw a Cooper’s hawk – or, rather, knew that I saw a Cooper’s hawk. It must have been after college when my husband and I first experienced the southward migration of hawks and other birds. We had joined scientists monitoring peregrine falcons on Assateague Island off the coast of Maryland and in the process of searching mostly in vain for the falcons, we saw other species of raptors, including Cooper’s hawks.
The Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii), named for early American zoologist William Cooper, belongs to the accipiter family, one of the tribes of raptors. Accipiters are forest hawks. Their long tails, powerful wings, and laser-focused eyes enable them to streak through woodlands in search of prey, which is mostly other birds. On bird walks I often get asked how I can identify a Cooper’s hawk in flight at long distance. It’s fairly easy once you know the difference in flight pattern for each raptor group. The Cooper’s hawk tends to fly very straight, with a flap/flap/glide pattern – and the long tail is an important clue. Falcons are streamlined rockets whose silhouette can look like a cocked bow; buteos, with their broad wings and shortish tails, often soar.
What is not so easy is distinguishing the medium-sized Cooper’s hawk from its smaller cousin, the sharp-shinned hawk. The two species are almost identically marked. The adults have blue-gray backs, horizontally streaked reddish breasts, and barred tails. Juveniles are brown with vertically streaked white and brown breasts. Female sharpies are almost the same size as male Cooper’s, so identification can be tricky (female raptors are larger than males). Usually the tail tip of the Cooper’s hawk is rounded rather than squared like the sharpie’s, but that can be difficult to see, and often the Cooper’s hawk’s head appears larger relative to its body.
When we first moved to Barrington in the mid-70s, it was rare to see Cooper’s hawks. I remember the excitement of a friend in Cary who called me to report a nest of one not far from her home in a woodland adjacent to a cemetery. Not too many years later I discovered a nest in the woodland at Baker’s Lake Savanna after hearing its distinctive, loud ke-ke-ke-ke-ke-ke call. The hawks had rebounded from the DDT crisis of the 60s and 70s and had begun moving into woodlands, and even parks and residential areas, throughout the region. They now are considered fairly common year-round residents of the Barrington area. Their fondness for birds (one of their nicknames is “chicken hawk”) has made them regulars at area bird feeders – which usually does NOT endear them to residents feeding the birds!
But I always am excited to see a Cooper’s hawk, be it on a perch surveying a feeder, or building its large stick nest thirty feet off the ground in a tree, or flying who knows where against a blue sky. On monthly walks along Lake Michigan south of McCormick Place, we see at least one Cooper’s hawk almost every time, right in the heart – albeit wilder heart – of Chicago. In Barrington, I will keep my eyes alert for the raptor just about anywhere this winter, and hope you will, too!
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.