Cooper’s Hawks Come and Go   Leave a comment

Once upon a time, we had a pair of Sharp-shinned Hawks in our neighborhood. My wife and I were sure of this identification because, for a brief time, we also had a pair of Cooper’s Hawks hanging around. It’s much easier to identify very similar species when you see them together, even if you need to look quickly to catch sight of both species during a hot pursuit. And when I said that this overlap was for a brief time, I meant that quite literally. Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks occupy such similar ecological niches that competition between them is pretty fierce. The Cooper’s Hawk is the larger of these dueling species, and so it’s no wonder that the smaller sharpies – as bird watchers often call them – came out on the short end. They were displaced. Or eaten. It could have gone either way.

And so, for several years now, there’s been a pair of Cooper’s Hawks nesting in our neighborhood. They are magnificent birds, but also a mixed blessing. These are one of two species of avian predators in our habitat, the resident Great Horned Owls being the other. (It’s a day shift, night shift sort of thing.) The hawks are strongly attracted to our mesquite-filled suburban yard, and hunt here on a regular basis. Their preferred prey items are other birds, which are also drawn to our yard in respectable numbers for the food, water, and shelter to be found here. Without intending to, really, our place is something of a buffet for hawks. I know they need to eat, but finding scattered feathers, wings, and heads in the yard does get old after a while.

Life is a chancy business in the natural world, even in places where the concept of ‘natural’ can become somewhat strained, as I believe it to be in the suburbs. As proof of this, late one evening in January (2020), just as the sun was setting, we heard the piercing screams of a hawk, sounds that went off the scale and raised gooseflesh as we listened. There was no doubt that we heard an animal in great distress. You didn’t need to anthropomorphize at all to hear pain and fear in those raptor cries. There was no knowing which hawk we’d heard screaming; we could only be sure it was a Cooper’s Hawk. Not long after, as night began to fall, I heard the hooting of a Great Horned Owl, a hunter that is known to sometimes kill and eat other predatory birds.

We feared the worst for the resident hawks, and in fact, after that evening there was no sign of the male half of the pair. Whatever actually happened to the male – distinguished by being smaller that his mate – all we saw for several weeks afterward was the larger female. She continued to hunt in the neighborhood, but was uncharacteristically quiet.

As spring approached, while on one of my morning walks, I saw her in conflict with a smaller Cooper’s hawk. This conflict repeated a few times over the following days, with the smaller bird – presumably a male – really getting the worst of it. At one point, half his tail feathers were missing. But his persistence paid off. One morning I saw both birds gathering sticks for a nest and carrying them up into a large Aleppo pine tree along my walking route. And in the last couple of weeks, a trio of apparently healthy and hungry young hawks fledged. They’ve been ranging around the neighborhood, not yet capable of hunting on their own. They often give high-pitched, plaintive cries to let their parents know where they are, and to remind them of their hunger. The adult birds have been so busy filling this need that, for a while, we thought something had happened to the female, we saw her so seldom. But she was just busy, apparently hunting over a wider territory to fill this sudden need.

One morning, about two weeks after the young hawks fledged, I witnessed hawk behavior of a sort I’ve never seen, or even guessed that I might. I was on yet another morning walk when the three young hawks flashed across the street ahead of me, chasing each other, zooming into and out of trees and sending frantic mourning doves fleeing in all directions. Suddenly, there were five hawks; the parents had launched themselves from a tall tree nearby and scattered the three youngsters, who quickly regrouped and gave chase. There followed a great deal of diving in and out of trees, in what appeared the be an aerial game of “tag,” a game the adults had clearly mastered. At some point the adults headed east and disappeared from view, their offspring trailing along behind, one by one.

I’ve seen young hawks play before. This is normal, expected behavior. Many species of animal use play as a way to work various instincts into skills for daily use. For these hawks this morning, it was all about flying and maneuvering, abilities they will need to refine, and refine quickly, if they are to be successful hunters. And to evade the occasional Great Horned Owl. What surprised me on that morning was the parental involvement. They joined the game, mixed things up, and effectively made the offspring work harder. All of it was surely good experience for the youngsters. It’s a display of behavior I’d never seen before, although in hindsight, it makes perfect sense that the parents would join their offspring in such an important game.

Posted July 29, 2020 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

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