March 2024
Bird of the Month
Ryan Crouse

Cooper’s Hawk

The natural process is an unstoppable force, a cycle driven by the desire to eat and simultaneously not be eaten. It’s a cycle that’s often brutal. As humans, we are insulated from the life-wagering activities that guide the day of an average wild bird.

Sometimes, though, we can glimpse this daily struggle play out in front of us. A very common example of this is watching a cunning Cooper’s hawk ambush a group of birds busily feeding at a backyard buffet. A peaceful moment of watching the birds is interrupted by an explosion of activity as the flock frantically takes wing moments before the skilled predator zeroes in on the slowest of the group, striking with speed, high maneuverability and precision. In a moment it’s over; the weakest has fallen and the cycle continues. It’s a harsh one, but it is a reality. It’s not uncommon for us to have a customer inquire as to how they can keep the “hawk” from killing the birds in their backyard. The simplest answer is, “stop feeding the birds.”

I spotted this adult male Cooper's hawk in a tree right off Willow Creek Rd.

When we create an unnatural concentration of bird activity, predators are quick to pick up on it. Given the fact that roughly 40% of American households feed birds regularly, this gives animals like the Cooper’s hawk ample opportunity not only to find these concentrations, but to develop a style of hunting unique to the backyard habitat.

Through years of customer accounts it’s become obvious that Cooper’s hawks have perfected a technique in which they fly in from the appropriate angle, direct the excited explosion of birds toward the house and hope that one of them is unable to override its sympathetic nervous response and consequently hit a window at full speed. This instantly incapacitates the bird, making it easy for the triumphant accipiter to simply pluck it off the ground and enjoy its meal. It’s a plan, carried out using their environment as a tool. This requires critical thinking that rewards them with an easier meal devoid of the dangers of having to catch and kill the prey themselves.

Cooper’s hawks are bird-hunters by nature. With their close North American cousins the sharp-shinned hawk and Northern goshawk, they patrol the continent’s dense woodlands in search of unwary passerines. While they may prey on mammalian targets of opportunity, their short, rounded wings are specifically designed for close-quarters, high-speed maneuverability. Their long, rudder-like tail aids in rapid adjustments in direction, and can also be deployed as an air-brake. This tool can abruptly halt movement when they find themselves in the perfect position to snatch a bird from its perch. They can’t always rely on a window, after all.

Because of this tendency to patrol the neighborhood feeders, they are a common site in the backyard, often seen on the slat of a fence or a low tree branch.

Regardless of your opinion of them, they are handsome raptors with a unique shape. They sit almost perfectly upright, long tail pointing directly to the ground below. The head is quite large for the body, and a flat forehead slopes seamlessly into the beak. Adult birds display bright red eyes that darken to deep garnet with age. This well documented process makes it easy to estimate how old a given bird is.

An adult bird will have a slate-grey back, a banded tail with bright salmon-colored barring extending from breast to belly.

Cooper’s hawks are also widely known to use birdbaths, unusual in the raptor world. It’s not out of the question to see one thigh-deep in water, plumage ruffled as it preens its feathers, free of the day’s activities.

So like any other bird the Cooper’s hawk uses our yards as habitat, feeding there and even using the birdbaths we happily provide. Why, then, is there an almost universal negative response to their presence? The answer is obvious: there is a viscerally off-putting feeling associated with witnessing death, especially in the context of our backyards.

While this is understandable, we have to consider that when we inject ourselves into the natural process by feeding birds, there are strings attached. Nature does not cease in a yard, it simply extends from the other side of that fence. The process of a Cooper’s hawk hunting and culling a flock of its old and weak is a necessary one, not to mention that the hawk and its young need to eat too.

Back to the original question, “how do I get rid of the hawk?” While the easy answer is to stop feeding the birds, the better answer is “Do nothing. Because after all, you’re still just feeding the birds!”

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at