Predator in the Sky

More than 52 million people enjoy feeding birds at home. Are you one of them? As you observe the behavior of finches, woodpeckers, doves, cardinals and jays jockeying for positions, you may see them suddenly scatter. As birds disappear into the bushes, the scene turns eerily quiet. Look around and you will likely find an aerial predator: the Cooper’s hawk.

Catching birds is the natural niche of a Cooper’s hawk, along with their similar-looking cousin, the sharp-shinned hawk. The Cooper’s hawk pursues birds through dense forests on its short, powerful rounded wings, using its long tail for stability. Easy prey at bird feeders helps them subsist during winter. Some people get upset when a hawk takes their favorite birds, but other people – like me – get excited to see a hawk up close, realizing the food web connection.

The hawk conceals itself in trees while perching and scanning. Short forays often end with walking on the ground as they search in bushes. The Cooper’s hawk seizes prey with its sharp talons and squeezes the animal to death. Its meal includes medium-sized birds like doves, robins and jays, or rodents such as chipmunks and voles.

Like other raptors, it tears pieces off the victim with its hooked beak. The hawk plucks the feathers off first and keeps looking around to ensure the scene is safe. Later, it flies off with the carcass to finish eating elsewhere or to take to its family. Food moves into the bird’s muscular gizzard, which grinds material before digestion in the stomach. The gizzard also crushes the nondigestible feathers, bones or fur, and gradually compacts them into a pellet. Hawks, owls and eagles will regurgitate pellets; finding and dissecting them gives us clues to the diet and whereabouts of these predators.

During summer, the male Cooper’s hawk builds most of the nest and hunts for the whole family, passing prey to the female who broods three to five juveniles. After fledging, the young are fed by both parents until they are 7 weeks old.

If a hawk frequently visits your yard and you do not want to witness the action, take down your feeders for several days until the hawk moves on. Songbirds will find other natural food supplies, but they will return after you replace your feeders.