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Cooper's Hawk
cooper's hawk
Cooper's hawk, photographed at Green Cay Nature Center in Boynton Beach, February 2012.
juvenile cooper's hawk

Life ain't always easy for the cooper's hawk, Accipiter cooperii. This denizen of the forest sits at the top of the food chain. It is among the most skillful of flyers, but chasing prey through the woods can be a dangerous occupation. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, a study of 300 cooper's hawk skeletons found nearly a quarter had evidence of bone fractures.

Cooper's hawks are a winter visitors to South Florida but they aren't all migratory. A portion of their population breeds in southern Canada, northern United States, spending their winters in warmer climes like South Florida. But a large number of these birds, who inhabit most of the U.S., including a chunk of Florida just up the coast, stay put year round.

Medium-sized birds are on their menu — mourning doves, starlings and pigeons are among their favorites — but they also raid nests and will dine on small mammals as well. Their method of killing: grabbing and squeezing its prey to death.

It is siimilar in appearance to several other hawks, including the red-shouldered — we originally misidentified the one pictured above as a red-shouldered hawk — and especially the sharp-shinned hawk. The red eyes, dark "skull cap" and long tail separate the cooper's hawk from the red-shouldered. The sharp-shinned is smaller overall, has a smaller head, a dark nape and its tail is more squared than the cooper's hawk. Juvenile Cooper's hawks have yellow eyes, the rounded tail, brown vertical bars on the chest and are brown above. Cooper's hawks also have thin horizontal bars on the tail. (Sharp-shinned hawks are also winter visitors to South Florida.)


Cooper's hawks can have a body lenth of 18 inches, with a wingspan between two and three feet. Males are smaller than females, which can make life a bit tricky for the guys when they have romance on their minds. They are about the size of a nice meal, so caution is advised.

They nest high in trees, usually in dense woods, with pines, oaks and other hardwoods favorites sites. Males do almost all of the nest-building, typically over a couple of weeks, with the females contributing slightly. Nests are made of sticks.

Females lay between two and six eggs, which require a month to five weeks of incubation before hatching. The young remain in the nest for a month before they're ready to venture out.

Cooper's hawks are members of Accipitridae, a family of birds that include hawks, eagles, kites, harriers and some vultures.

Photographs by David Sedore
Links for Cooper's Hawk Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology National Audubon Society National Geographic Society
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.