Cooper’s Hawk is seen in the Piney Woods

Jay V. Huner
Journal Correpondent

Cooper’s Hawk is a hunter that specializes in hunting birds.
Hawks are hunters specializing in different prey including small mammals, birds, fish and even insects. Cooper's Hawks belong to the group of raptors called accipters and specialize in hunting birds. They are distinct in having short, rounded wings and long tails both of which flare as the birds maneuver in close cover. In fact, if you have bird feeders that attract pigeons and doves, you may see a Cooper's Hawk from time to time even if you live in a completely urban environment.

The common name "blue darter" describes adult Cooper's Hawks quite well because they appear dark blue above and have dark bluish-black crowns. The breast is rusty-barred. Immature birds are brown above and have streaked brown breasts.

Now, here's where the rub comes in. There are actually two hawks commonly called "blue darters". The second is the Sharp-shinned Hawk that closely resembles the Cooper's Hawk. As in all raptors, females are larger than males in both species. So, if you see a really big "blue darter", it is sure to be a female Cooper's Hawk but a smaller bird might be a female Sharp-shinned Hawk or a male Cooper's Hawk!

Two ways to distinguish the two species involve body shape. In silhouette, the head of the Cooper's Hawk extends clearly from the body and the folded tail is rounded. Conversely, in the Sharp-shinned Hawk, it is difficult to separate its head from the body and the folded tail is square. In addition, Sharp-shinned Hawks are winter visitors to our region with few authenticated reports of their nesting here. So, if you see an accipter from late spring through early fall, it is almost certainly a Cooper's Hawk.

Although biologically engineered to hunt in heavy cover, Cooper's Hawks are not immune to crashes. A study of many Cooper's Hawk skeletons show that many have mended broken bones in the chest area.

Cooper's Hawks fly in a characteristic manner involving several flaps and a glide and repeat. They will often fly close to the ground and approach prey located behind cover. This allows them to get to prey, especially small birds, that don't see the approaching predators until it is too late to flee.

The term "chicken hawk" applies to any large hawk and Cooper's Hawks will pick off stray chickens, especially young ones and banties. But, you should know, up front, that killing or harming any hawk without a proper permit is a federal offense punishable under the Lacey Act. The Feds don't kid around!

An interesting account about Cooper's Hawks is found in Professor George H. Lowery, Jr.'s classic book "Louisiana Birds" with the most recent edition -3rd - published in 1974. Forty years ago, Dr. Lowery was concerned about the drastic decline in Cooper's Hawk numbers then. This was clearly the result of bioaccumulation of chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides such as DDT from the food chain. Some readers refuse to believe scientific data showing the impact of the pesticides on reproduction of hawks and eagles. But, fortunately since those pesticides were removed from use, hawk populations have rebounded and Cooper's Hawks, in particular, are reasonably common.