The F-22 Raptor fighter jet has a powerful array of weaponry for airborne interception as well as having the ability for devastating ground attacks and it’s almost invisible to radar. Speed and stealth are two of its lethal advantages when intercepting a target. The F-22 remains unmatched by any known or projected fighter jet.
Speed and stealth are also the primary lethal advantages of one of the most amazing raptors of Michigan’s bird world, the Cooper’s hawk. Cooper’s hawks zip through tree canopies in a high-speed pursuit of other birds or explode from cover and swoop in for a lightning-fast ambush kill of a bird nonchalantly feasting on spillage under a bird feeder.
The Cooper’s hawk is unmatched in Michigan in its ability to seek out and take out its primary target—smaller birds. They, too, have air supremacy.
Cooper’s hawks are sleek and rather beautiful accipiters and a common woodland raptor of Michigan. They have adapted well to suburban areas, even nesting within neighborhoods and city parks if a patchwork of trees for nesting is available. There is an obvious advantage of living in the suburbs. Abundant bird feeders lure in birds, squirrels and rabbits, making those sites especially attractive to this opportunist meat-eating accipiter.
To avoid confusion, it’s important to realize that the words raptor and accipiter are not interchangeable, but the Cooper’s hawk is both. Confused? Then read on!
A raptor is a bird of prey such as an owl, hawk, eagle or falcon that catches live prey with its sharp talons. That makes the Cooper’s hawk a raptor, but it’s also an accipiter.
Accipiters are hawks identified by their physical characteristics and notable flight patterns, which allow for greater agility and maneuverability when flying rapidly between trees, at times close to the ground.
Accipiters tend to be more secretive than most hawks and are observed much less frequently than most other raptors. Accipiters have short, rounded wings and long, rudder-like tail feathers. Combine those navigation assists with their long legs and sharp curved talons and they are lethal when it comes to intercepting and grasping other birds in flight.
Michigan has three species of accipiters; the Cooper’s hawk, the sharp-shinned hawk, which is almost identical except in size to the Cooper’s hawk, and the powerful lesser-seen northern goshawk, a fierce defender of its nest. As a ‘this happened to me’ sidebar, I once had an unexpected encounter with a northern goshawk while hiking off-trail in the interior of South Manitou Island. I made a rapid-fire detour after this fearsome appearing accipiter made several well-executed and highly vocal low passes at me.
The Cooper’s hawk is masterful at high-speed pursuit in clear skies and between trees. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology agrees with my thoughts that there are risks in a pursuit between trees. The Lab states, “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,” likely from the birds hitting into stationary objects while darting after prey. Once they catch the prey in their talons, they will squeeze their prey repeatedly until it is dead. Some have even been known to drown their prey.
When wandering my meadow, I will sometimes approach a Cooper’s hawk that perches near the woodland edge. When it takes flight, its ‘casual’ flight pattern is easily recognizable. It almost always consists of several rapid flaps and then a glide, unlike the pattern of one of our most recognizable hawks, the red-tailed hawk that is often seen soaring in lazy appearing circles high overhead with very few wing flaps unless it suddenly switches directions.
For most of this rapidly fading winter, I enjoyed watching a Cooper’s hawk “visit” my bird feeders, but I was never fast enough with my camera to capture the actual attack. I would usually be unaware of its presence as I worked at my desk until I noticed birds exploding into flight in all directions from under the feeder. By the time I grabbed my camera, I was rarely able to even capture a fleeting glimpse of the Cooper’s hawk.
I was successful on some occasions in watching the hawk perched on a branch just a few dozen yards from my house, preening after consuming its meal; the source for my photos. As I typed away today, I witnessed a Cooper’s hawk zip onto the branch above my feeder. A female downy woodpecker was pecking away at a hanging suet feeder, and she froze in place the moment all the other birds scattered. My assumption is she knew there was danger, and by not moving, she was safe on the suet. She was.
By the time you read these words, Cooper’s hawks will be nesting. The University of Michigan describes the courtship this way, “Courtship displays include flight displays. For example, the male will fly around the female showing his under tail feathers to her. He raises his wings high above his back and flies in a wide arc with slow, rhythmic flapping. These display flights usually occur on bright, sunny days in mid-morning, and begin with both birds soaring high on warm rising air. The male and female may both participate in courtship flights. The male begins by diving toward the female, followed by a very slow-speed chase. Both birds move with a slow and exaggerated wingbeats alternated with glides.”
Both the male and female Cooper’s hawks care for their chicks during and after the incubation period of about a month. The female performs most of the egg incubation, but not all. The male protects the nest site by defending the area from predators. The male will also bring her prey that he has caught, which will usually be a bird in the wrong place at the wrong time—often on the ground scrounging under a bird feeder. After the eggs hatch, both parents feed and protect the initially helpless chicks. However, they grow rapidly and learn to fly after a few weeks. Both the male and female will continue to feed and protect the fledgling chicks until they can hunt and survive on their own and become masters of the sky.
I have a birder friend who refers to Cooper’s hawks as “the terrorists of the bird world.” Those thoughts are denial of nature’s way for this amazing bird with air supremacy. I’m hoping that as spring takes hold, I may locate the nesting site of the Cooper’s hawk that knows my bird feeders well and perhaps capture images of chicks as they take their first flights.
Jonathan Schechter is a naturalist and outdoor writer in Oakland County; email him at firstname.lastname@example.org