For the Birds: A different kind of ‘feeder’ bird

I walked across the living room toward the large window that offers a view of the bird-feeding station and birdbath. I stopped dead in my tracks as a bird much larger than I expected to see was perched on the side of the birdbath.

Wisely, all of the other birds were nowhere to be seen. 

It was a Copper’s hawk, one of the hawks in New England that commonly preys on small feeder birds. The large bird of prey had no interest in the birdbath’s water — either for drinking or cleaning. It was simply using the structure as a perch to get a better look at the feeders and nearby bushes. It hopped off the birdbath and onto a hemlock branch I had discarded to give the feeder birds a place to hide. After peering through the underbrush and finding nothing, the hawk flew off.

Known as accipiters, Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks often hunt around feeders looking for an easy meal. The two accipiters are look-alikes and cause much confusion, even among experienced birders. In general, Cooper’s hawks are larger than sharp-shinned hawks, but size is not a great differentiator as female sharp-shinned hawks can be about as large as a male Cooper’s hawk. Remember, females are usually larger than males when it comes to birds of prey.

Both accipiters are blue-gray above with dark orange horizontal streaks, or bars, on the breast, and red eyes. Immature birds of both species are dark brown above with light brown streaking on buff-colored breasts. Their eyes are yellow. 

The northern goshawk is also an accipiter but is not seen as often and is larger and bulkier than the other two species. For some context, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks and broad-winged hawks are members of the buteo family. They typically do not hunt around bird feeders.

The Cooper’s hawk I saw the other day on the birdbath was an immature bird. Of all the accipiters I’ve seen in my time outdoors and looking out at bird feeders, the vast majority have been immature birds. I’d say over 90 percent. It takes about two years for Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks to gain their full adult plumage. Either they are smart enough to not be seen by then, or many perish before reaching maturity.

I’ve had several memorable sightings of accipiters. There was the Christmas morning years ago when a Copper’s hawk devoured a mourning dove right on the other side of the sliding glass doors. Kids opening presents on one side of the door and nature on full display on the other. Then there was the time I drove home from work in a snowstorm and saw a Cooper’s hawk tearing apart a gray squirrel in the yard.

While most of my accipiter sightings have come in suburban settings, my most memorable sighting happened in a remote area of New Hampshire near the Canadian border. I was walking through a trail-less section of woods that had been clear-cut a number of years prior. The new pines were about 15 to 20 feet tall. I was looking for moose and, indeed, had found a cow and calf on that walk. I also heard a pack of coyotes not far off chasing and attacking an unfortunate animal.

I was observing a boreal chickadee in a pine when I glanced at the ground ahead of me. An immature Cooper’s hawk sat on the end of a fallen branch. The bird’s piercing yellow eyes stared right at me. With my suburban sightings, I feel as if I’m on my own turf. This time, I felt as if I was in its territory. The moose’s territory. The coyotes’ territory. It was a great feeling.

2 thoughts on “For the Birds: A different kind of ‘feeder’ bird

  1. When I lived in Wisconsin I liked to watch cooper’s hawks. Two would team up to hunt crows: one skimming a couple of feet above the ground would surprise crows feeding on the ground, two or three of which which would then rise up and chase the hawk who would lead them around the field to where the second hawk would try to dive bomb one of the crows from a tree.
    The fact that they are good flappers and good runners seemed to throw off prey who were sued to dealing with other species of hawk.


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