Cochise County Birds: Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter Cooperii

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First off, I must apologize for the low quality of the Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) photos on this page. On our Cochise County acreage, I’ve seen one of these hawks skimming low through the brush on rare occasion, but always they were well out of sight before the Canon PowerShot camera could make its way out of the case riding my left hip. Today’s sighting was up along Paloma Trail. The raptor was hunting, skimming the very tops of the tall bunchgrass, first on the east side and then on the west side of the road. As poor as these pictures may be, they’re the first I’ve managed to obtain in five years of living here; they’re not going to waste.

Of course, the day that New and Improved photos become available, they will definitely be posted to upgrade your viewing experience.

I’ve decided to have a love-hate relationship with the Cooper’s hawk. Love, for its beauty in flight (I’ve never seen one sitting still) and ability to “skim the grass”, flying so low that it often appears to be moving through the grass stems rather than above them. (In the brush, it definitely stays below the tops of the mesquite and other trees and bushes dotting the landscape.). Hate, because its swift hunting maneuvers produce a diet with a sizeable songbird component, and I’d rather have plenty of finches and sparrows around than one well fed hawk.

Caveat: The identification of the individual in these regrettably blurry pictures is not 100% certain. It appears to be an Accipiter cooperii, based on the following definite characteristics:

    1. Its hunting pattern. The Cooper’s hawk is known for moving rapidly through dense vegetation in its hunting forays, which this bird was definitely doing (and has been doing every time I’ve seen it fly).

    2. Its size. It’s certainly smaller than the red-tailed hawks hunting from atop the Paloma Trail power poles, but it’s no midget. “Medium sized hawk” fits it to a tee.

    3. The noticeably darker “head cap”.

    4. The barred patterns on wings and tail.

Wikipedia describes Cooper’s hawk’s hunting habits thusly:

These birds capture prey from cover or while flying quickly through dense vegetation, relying almost totally on surprise. One study showed that this is a quite dangerous hunting style. More than 300 Cooper’s Hawk skeletons were investigated and 23% revealed healed fractures in the bones of the chest. Cooper’s Hawks prey almost exclusively on small to mid-sized birds….

Other sources states that “in some areas” the Cooper’s hawk will rely more on a diet of small mammals than on small birds. Lizards and small snakes may also end up on the menu. The Coop is an equal opportunity eater.

Cooper's Hawk, hunting the tall bunchgrass along Paloma Trail in southern Cochise County, Arizona.

Cooper’s hawk, hunting the tall bunchgrass along Paloma Trail in southern Cochise County, Arizona.

The density of the bird’s chosen hunting turf is fairly extreme. The dead winter bunchgrass stands will hide most of a full sized deer, as we’d noticed earlier in the day when a herd of blacktail deer caught the camera’s eye.

Blacktail deer provide a sense of scale; that is some seriously tall bunchgrass, winter-dead or not.

Blacktail deer provide a sense of scale; that is some seriously tall bunchgrass, winter-dead or not.

Another look at the grassy hunting ground patrolled by the Cooper's Hawk.

Another look at the grassy hunting ground patrolled by the Cooper’s hawk.

Neither the red-tailed hawk nor the Cooper’s hawk in this area seem to worry overmuch about humans living too close. The red-tailed flyer will grumpily take off from its preferred hunting perch if I point the camera its way for more than a few seconds at a time, but neither species pays the slightest bit of attention to nearby residences.

The Cooper's hawk ignores a nearby residence (as well as my camera work from the roadside) as it focuses on rounding up lunch.

The Cooper’s hawk ignores a nearby residence (as well as my camera work from the roadside) as it focuses on rounding up lunch.

We didn’t get to see what sort of prey the hawk found for lunch–which is fine by us–but there was no doubt the bird scored. I’d been snapping pictures for several minutes when the low flying raptor suddenly flared its wings to change direction…and a few yards later on, dropped from sight, hidden (along with so much else) from our mere human vision.

Not only that, but that time the hawk stayed down, obviously enjoying a private meal.

The meal did not likely enjoy the process nearly as much, such being the nature of Nature.

The Cooper's hawk suddenly flared its wings, changed directions,  and a few yards farther on...

The Cooper’s hawk suddenly flared its wings, changed directions, and a few yards farther on…

...dropped completely out of sight, nabbing a prey critter and settling in for a private meal.

…dropped completely out of sight, presumably nabbing a prey critter and settling in for a private meal.

One photo in particular illustrates the Coop’s habit of flying through vegetation in order to take its prey by surprise.

Flying through (not above) the grass, the Cooper's hawk can be seen at the far right center of the photo, its underside reflecting nearly the same light coloration as the winter-dead grass.

Flying through (not above) the grass, the Cooper’s hawk can be seen at the far right center of the photo, its underside reflecting nearly the same light coloration as the winter-dead forage.

There seems to be no end to the variety of wildlife available to the photographer’s eye on our twenty desert acres, and that’s a good thing. Oh, the sense of infinity is an illusion, of course, but hitherto “missed” critters do continue to pop up. There’s an owl around here somewhere, seen but twice and then but briefly, flying as low and silently as the Cooper’s hawk itself. There are javelinas, whose tracks I see regularly but who manage to stay deeply under cover during daylight hours.

Those tracks are, of course, highly educational in themselves. Our housemate, Alta, took a leisurely stroll around our property with me yesterday. She’s hardly a pure city girl, but neither has she had the opportunity to learn woodcraft. As we meandered, I pointed out a few things: Though both of cloven hoof, the prints of the deer were softer, less sharply pointed, not stabbed so deeply in the earth as those of the javelina. In one spot, a coyote had dug deep, driving with its claws to bring up an underground snack. That hole looked like one made by a kangaroo rat…but might not have been. A spotted ground squirrel, perhaps, since the kangas don’t usually dig in the open like that, preferring to hang near mesquite roots that can give them extra cover. Near the wellhead, moles had brought up fresh piles of dirt.

It struck me then, the old adage: If you would learn, teach. I hadn’t realized I knew as much of what the wild had to tell me as I did…until I began explaining bits of it to Alta.

One thing I did not tell her. Our friend prefers to walk barefooted when she can. A couple of days ago, her barefoot prints showed up out back, near the scattered scrap lumber left over from my porch building and hot water tank installation projects. My shod prints were, of course, all over the place as well.

I did not tell her it was easy to see a much heavier human had walked there, her 300-plus pounds sinking her tracks twice as deeply as my 170 had done. That, she did not need to hear, much as we did not need to see the prey of the Cooper’s hawk consumed. Nor did she need to be shown the paired feathers beneath the outer edge of the cargo trailer, plucked remains of one of our sparrows. Some things really do come under the heading of TMI, Too Much Information, for the uninitiated.