Immature Cooper’s Hawk

I got a call today from the Sewanee Children’s Center: a dead hawk was lying in the playground. On my way home, I stopped by and did an impromptu “show and tell” for the kids. Nothing is more interesting at 5pm than dead animals, it seems. Because Sewanee is a small town, I know which households some of the kids came from. Interestingly, those from homes with nature-loving/trail-hiking/garden-keeping parents were very keen to hold the bird (wash your hands afterward kiddo…) and feel its soft feathers and sharp toes. Those from iHomes shrunk back: ah, the horrors of nature.

The bird was a Cooper’s Hawk in its immature plumage. The bird was full grown, but had not yet molted into the adult breeding plumage. It may have hit a window and fallen to the playground below.

Cooper’s Hawks hunt other birds by chasing them down at high speeds in the forest canopy. To pull off this feat in the clutter of twigs and branches, the hawk has fairly short rounded wings and a long rudder-like tail. Its legs are also quite long — all the better to fish hiding birds out of tree holes.

The look-alike Sharp-shinned Hawk can be hard to tell apart from Cooper’s Hawks. I’m calling this one a Cooper’s because of the broad white band at the end of its tail, the relatively fine streaks on the belly that taper off to mostly white, the somewhat rounded end to the tail, and the fact that it is larger than some (but not all, females can be quite big) “Sharpies.”

This bird is now in my freezer and will become a student’s Ornithology project next semester. I’d much rather the bird was alive, roosting in an oak tonight. But, because death has yet again paid an untimely visit, we may as well use its remains to learn more about the world.

9 thoughts on “Immature Cooper’s Hawk

    1. Grace Renshaw

      We have been watching (and listening to) what we think is a great-horned owl in our inner-city neighborhood in Nashville for several years now. I’m guessing owls are crepuscular, because this one is active at dusk and dawn, when we walk our dog. Now that there are no leaves on the trees to hide him (her?), we can listen for the hooting, and then find the owl-shaped lump, which is usually at the very top of the tree. Two days ago, I saw him take wing. We often see hawks as well; thanks for offering a close-up view of this one.

      1. Grace Renshaw

        Thanks for the bird-call site! Based on the call recording, our owl is definitely a great-horned owl. My cataract-impaired eyesight, the dusky light and the owl’s location — he typically roosts at the very top of the old-growth trees in our neighborhood – all make it difficult to confirm his ear tufts, but his call matches the great-horned call. Depending on how long owls live, we may have seen this owl as a young bird in 1989, when we watched over a couple of weeks as three great-horned chicks left their nest on a private school campus near our house. The three chicks spent almost a week perching on branches low enough so their tufts were clearly visible for several days; my guess is the mother was feeding them and helping them gain the strength to start their independent lives, but we didn’t see her. We believe there are at least two great horned owls living near us, as sometimes we get hooting in stereo. We also often hear screech owls, but they are smaller and harder for me to spot.

        1. David George Haskell Post author

          Wonderful! And, owls (especially large owls) start breeding way earlier than most birds. So, they are likely setting up territories and pairing up right now. Glad to hear that the site was helpful. The “birding By Ear” CDs are also a great resource for learning songs and calls.

  1. Chris Van de Ven

    My kids were very excited about the hawk on the playground. They talked about it quite a lot. Thanks for the impromptu show-and-tell.


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