By Clay Christensen
For the past several weeks, I have not been seeing as many birds at my feeders as I usually do.
When I refilled my feeders the other day, I noticed the platform feeder looked like it had hardly been touched. The oriole/hummingbird feeder, with nectar and grape jelly, had no evidence of activity beyond the few beak marks left in the jelly the first day I filled it.
And I think I know the reason: There’s a pair of Cooper’s Hawks that have built a nest in the neighborhood.
Cooper’s Hawks are accipiters, birds that hunt other birds. The word accipiter comes from a Latin verb meaning “to seize.”
The songbirds must have seen the Cooper’s and decided it’s too risky to try to peck at seed from a feeder while constantly looking over their shoulders. One of the Cooper’s will perch in a giant maple tree across the street from where it can survey the feeders in my yard.
Pete Dunne, renowned ornithologist, describes the Cooper’s Hawk as shaped like a bowling pin.
And, as an added bonus, the hawk can turn its head around and watch the chickens in my neighbor’s yard. The chickens are kept in a coop, but are still probably very tempting to the hawks.
The Cooper’s has the nickname “Chicken Hawk” and it’s apparently well deserved.
I was walking my pup, Rocky, down the street for his afternoon walk when I saw a Cooper’s Hawk fly across the street. The hawk was flying low to the ground, carrying something. This was just about 200 feet ahead of us.
As I watched, another critter came from the same direction, zipped across the street and headed toward where the hawk had gone. It was followed by another Cooper’s Hawk. What was going on?
My neighbor, Tyler, who owns the lot on which the hawks’ nest tree stands, came out into his yard and I asked him if he had seen what I’d seen.
Tyler said the Cooper’s Hawks had been having an animated argument about some prey one of them had caught. One fled with the prize, apparently a baby bunny.
The other critter I’d seen was a rabbit chasing after the first hawk! I’ve never seen a rabbit chase anything but another rabbit. I was very impressed by the apparent parental instinct of protection that the rabbit showed.
Tyler had no report on the final disposition of the baby bunny, but I’m certain it was grim.
Two of my neighbors have reported seeing a smaller Cooper’s Hawk chasing a red squirrel in a tree in their yards.
The first neighbor described seeing a squirrel in a pine tree, circling around the trunk, running up and down the tree, all the while dodging the hawk flapping around the tree trying to get an open shot at the squirrel. The squirrel survived the ordeal.
The second neighbor watched a hawk/squirrel encounter in their large silver maple tree in their front yard. The husband, Drew, said his wife, Marisa, was on team squirrel! And the squirrel did outlast its pursuer.
I’ve read that Cooper’s Hawks use squirrels as training for their youngsters. A squirrel could be a dangerous catch; they’ve got teeth and could bite off a hawk’s leg if given the opportunity. But the exercise of chasing one around a tree helps when it comes to trying to nab elusive prey.
Another neighbor, Kiera, was on her knees planting flowers in her front yard, when she heard and felt a bird fly right over her head. It was a Cooper’s Hawk, chasing a blackbird. She heard a thump and thinks the bird hit the neighbor’s window.
That’s a common hunting technique used by Coopers: drive the prey into a window they don’t see. There are tales of a Cooper’s driving a bird into the windshield of a parked car.
I can recognize a Cooper’s Hawk in flight because it’s all business. They fly lower than most birds, below the tree line, making a direct flight from point A to point B. No meandering, and very fast. It says, “I’m gonna go kill something!” And they fly back with their victim in the same way: low, direct, and fast.
Describing how Coopers dispatch their victims makes me a little queasy. They lay the prey bird on its back and then stand on its chest, suffocating it to death. I just think how horrible it must be to slowly die facing a Cooper’s Hawk looking down at you. I guess that’s Nature, red in tooth and claw.
The Cooper’s call is a kek-kek-kek-kek, about four per second. The male often uses a single kek just to check in with his mate and let her know where he is.
When I hear any of this kek-ing, I start looking for Cooper’s—and hoping any nearby prey are too!
Clay Christensen, a longtime birder, lives in and writes for the Bugle from Lauderdale.