A Cooper’s Hawk Visit

Cooper's Hawk Sitting in a Tree After a Failed Hunting Attempt
Cooper’s Hawk Sitting in a Tree After a Failed Hunting Attempt

I’ve got a lot of bird feeders up in the yard which attract a lot of birds. These birds attract hawks of various kinds. In the past year, we’ve seen Red-Shouldered Hawks, Red-Tailed Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-Shined Hawks in the yard. Lately though, what we see most are Cooper’s Hawks.

Cooper’s Hawks in the Yard

They are incredibly agile fliers. They like to sit maybe mid-way up a tall tree (or occasionally higher or even on the roof) and survey the yard. Then they take off, often swooping down to cross the yard low and fast before they swoop back up. Sometimes they are simply moving to a new perch. Other times they are trying to bag their dinner. They love to try and take their prey by surprise.

Goldfinches in Same Hanging Feeder
Goldfinches in Same Hanging Feeder

Birds React to the Cooper’s Hawk

Just yesterday I saw a Cooper’s Hawk take an American Goldfinch off the hanging platform feeder. There were a variety of birds at the feeders in this area. The Cooper’s swooped through from left to right. The birds mostly scattered and she didn’t get anyone and so she landed in a tree to the right of the feeders. Then she turned around and almost immediately swooped from right to left, plucking the Goldfinch off the feeder as she flew through the area and back across the yard to the trees at the far side. It was pretty impressive really, when you think that she snagged this little bird from in between the feeder’s hanging posts as she zipped past it.

You can assume that you have a hawk around when the birds outside erupt into frantic flight heading every which way and then everything is abruptly quiet. The exodus is often when you hear the sickening thunk of a bird hitting a window in their hurry to get away.

Most of the birds react to a hawk with flight; a few instead take the tactic of freezing in place. They know that movement can draw attention to themselves. It’s a tricky thing though. The Goldfinch yesterday, choose to freeze instead of flee and that made him the Cooper’s dinner. But I’ve also seen it go the other way. One day Jim and I watched a Cooper’s chasing a small bird across the yard (maybe a House Finch) which got away. A Mourning Dove sitting in a tree that the Cooper’s had passed during the flight got spooked and decided to flee the opposite way. The now empty-clawed Cooper’s Hawk quickly turned around and took the Mourning Dove instead. If it had stayed put, it might not have drawn the hawk’s attention. Flee or freeze? As a bird, it’s hard to know which is the right move.

It always makes me feel a little sad when one of the birds become a hawk’s dinner. The hawk isn’t doing anything wrong of course. It’s just trying to eat what it is meant to eat. And hawks are beautiful birds in their own right; they are awesome to see. I’ve tried to keep hawks in mind when I’ve placed feeders in my yard though. Birds appreciate feeders that are covered or that are not too far away from cover – either a brush pile or bushes, vines or trees. This at least gives them a chance to get away when a hawk pays a surprise visit.

Sharp-Shined vs Cooper’s Hawk

While we’ve had bigger hawks hunt in the yard in the past, the type of hawks that tend to hunt at backyard feeders are more likely to be Cooper’s Hawks or Sharp-Shined Hawks. They look very similar to each other and so are easily confused. Cornell Lab’s FeederWatch has a really good page on their site comparing the two, with a whole list of differences. 

One guideline that people often use is size. Typically a Cooper’s Hawk is about the size of a crow while a Sharp-Shined Hawk is about the size of a Blue Jay. BUT, in both cases, the female of the species is larger than its male. So a male (and therefore smaller) Cooper’s Hawk might be fairly close in size to a female (and therefore larger) Sharp-Shined Hawk. Also size can be hard to judge when the bird is flying or high up in a tree.

See the Cooper's Hawk's Rounded Tail?
See the Cooper’s Hawk’s Rounded Tail and Capped Head?

There are a few features that I try to focus on that help me decide what I am seeing. One is the tail, which when the bird is perched, is more rounded at the tip on a Cooper’s and more squared off on a Sharp-Shined. I also look at the general appearance. A Cooper’s is stockier looking with a proportionally larger head. The feathers on the top of an adult Cooper’s Hawk’s head are darker than those on the back of the neck so she looks like she is wearing a cap. The feathers on the back of a Sharp-Shined Hawk’s head look like those on the top of the head, so she looks like she is wearing a cape. (But watch out. Juveniles have different coloring just to confuse things.)

If you see them in flight, both have proportionally long tails, but the Cooper’s Hawk looks like a cross shape while the Sharp-Shined Hawk looks more like a double-headed battleaxe because the head is so small. The Cooper’s also flies with slower wing beats between glides, while the Sharp-Shined Hawk’s wing beats are quicker; they remind me of a moth fluttering around a light.

Mourning Dove Feathers in the Snow Suggest a Hawk Visit
Mourning Dove Feathers in the Snow Suggests a Hawk Visit

Both types of hawk go after birds that might visit feeders. A Sharp-Shined Hawk, being smaller, tends to go for the smaller birds. The Cooper’s Hawk, being larger, is probably more likely to try for the medium to large feeder birds, but obviously is willing to take a tiny Goldfinch if that’s what it can grab. In our yard, they seem to prefer the Mourning Doves which makes sense because they tend to be larger, slower moving birds.

Supposedly a Cooper’s Hawk will sometimes go after squirrels but I’ve never seen it in our yard. I’ve seen three squirrels run around in the same tree with a Cooper’s Hawk for quite a while; they kept an eye of the hawk but didn’t seem deterred in any way by it. When the birds scatter for a Cooper’s Hawk, the squirrels just continue on with whatever they are doing. In our yard, we would need a Red-Shouldered Hawk or a Red-Tailed Hawk to make a dent in the squirrel population.

Want to Learn More?

Here is the All About Birds page on Cooper’s Hawks:


And here is their page on Sharp-Shined Hawks:


I always have mixed feelings when the local Cooper’s Hawk comes to visit. She’ll usually hang around for several days, keeping the other birds on edge and easily spooked. But sooner or later, she’ll move on to hunt elsewhere for a while and then the other birds can breathe a little easier for awhile.

Have you had a Cooper’s Hawk or Sharp-Shined Hawk visit your yard?


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