The Cooper’s Hawk: A Stealthy Hunter

A member of the Accipiter family of hawks, Cooper’s hawks (Accipiter cooperii) have become one of the most abundant backyard birds of prey if not the most abundant since the 1960s. These small, crow-sized hawks prey on small- to medium-sized birds and small mammals. They’re often confused with the similar looking sharp-shinned hawk. Cooper’s hawks have a steely blue-gray-colored back with reddish-brown strips on their chest. They have a tendency to perch upright and their head almost looks squared off in the back. A good way to distinguish Cooper’s hawks is their tails. They have thick bands on their tails and the edges of their long, straight tails are rounded off, whereas the sharp-shinned’s tail is squared off.


A Cooper's hawk sits on a chain-link fence. It has its prey under one of its feet.
A Cooper’s hawk inspects its prey. Cooper’s hawks have long, straight tails that are rounded off at the end. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Cooper’s hawks have become very accustomed to living along side humans in subdivisions, cities and parks, as well as their traditional home of forests.

As common for many hawk species, females are larger. In fact, they can be anywhere from 2 inches to 4 inches larger than their male counterparts! Since a major portion of their diet is medium-sized birds, this can put the males at a distinct disadvantage. Males tread lightly around females and won’t approach for mating purposes until they hear the reassuring calls that she is receptive to his presence.

Nesting & Young

A Cooper's Hawk sits in a tree. The hawk has a mixture of gray and red feathers. There are no leaves on the tree branches.
Cooper’s hawks have a steely blue-gray-colored backs with reddish-brown strips on their chests. (Photo: Great Parks employee Luke Thies)

Courtship begins as early as March and includes flight displays and the male bowing. They form a monogamous pair for the season, not necessarily for life. Males build the nest almost entirely by themselves. They choose tall trees that grow on flat ground, not hillsides. They will choose a spot in the tree anywhere from 25 feet to 50 feet high, usually about 2/3 of the way up the tree. The nest will eventually be about 27 inches in diameter and anywhere from 6–17 inches deep! There is a cup-shaped depression in the center that measures 8 inches across and 4 inches deep, and that is lined with bark and occasionally green twigs. Two to six pale, blue/bluish-white eggs will be laid, and the female will incubate them for 34–36 days.

Once the eggs hatch, the young are covered in white downy feathers and are able to crawl around the nest area. This nestling phase will last for 27–34 days. During this whole time, the male is the sole provider of food for the female and the young. Once the young enter the fledgling stage, they will leave the nest, but return off and on. After about two months of that, they leave the nest for good. However, unwanted visitors may lurk around the nesting site: Cooper’s hawk eggs and young are preyed upon by great horned owls and raccoons.

After the young have fledged, the adults go their own way, living relatively solitary lives the rest of the year.

Flight Pattern

A juvenile Cooper's hawk in mid-flight catches it prey of a smaller bird.
A juvenile Cooper’s hawk in mid-flight catches it prey. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The flight pattern of the Cooper’s hawk is typical of the Accipiter family. Flap-flap-glide is typical until they’re in pursuit of food. Their broad wings, long tails, and smaller bodies are adapted for flying after prey through trees. They are more like the fighter jets of the hawk world than your larger hawks like the red-tailed or red-shouldered hawks. Cooper’s hawks will fly fast, low to the ground and pop up over obstructions to surprise their prey.

While you are outside, enjoying the nice spring weather, keep your eyes open to catch a glimpse of these magnificent birds of prey!

Follow more of Amy’s birding series by keeping an eye – and ear! – out for the Carolina wren.

Amy Roell
Director of Programming