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.

Cooper’s Hawk eating squirrel

Photo by Chris Bosak A young Cooper's Hawk eats a squirrel in southern New England in Feb. 2015.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A young Cooper’s Hawk eats a squirrel in southern New England in Feb. 2015.

The other day I pulled into my driveway and noticed a clump of brown in my neighbor’s yard. Birders are trained to notice anything out of the ordinary in a scene because it just might be a bird. Often these days it ends up being a plastic bag stuck in a tree, but sure enough, sometimes it is a bird.

Such was the case the other day. That brown clump was a bird, a young Cooper’s Hawk to be exact. Not only that, but the bird was eating (a Gray Squirrel as it turns out.) Cooper’s Hawks eat mainly birds, but small mammals can also fall prey to these quick and agile birds.

I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story. (Warning: If you don’t like the bloody side of nature, don’t click “continue reading.” Fair warning.)

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