The hawk crashing through our magnolia inches behind a terrified dove reminded me of the first time I saw a Cooper’s hawk. I was 14 and doing what I did every summer, rambling the woods and fields on my grandfather’s farm. Before then I thought that all hawks were big birds that perched above roadside ditches or soared over hay fields searching for something to eat. Deep in dense woods was not where I expected to see one.
It was a fleeting look. I was not sure what I had seen. I knew it was a hawk because of its shape, talons, and beak, but I did not know that there were hawks the size of a pigeon. It flashed over my head, dodging and darting between trees, bursting through oak leaves. It wasn’t stealthy. I chased it but it didn’t take long to realize that there was no keeping up with it. I replayed its image in my mind, hoping to recall specific features. I didn’t own a field guide but my grandparents might know the bird and there was always the shelf of bird books in the Carnegie Library.
I can’t say with certainty that my mystery bird was a Cooper’s hawk. It could have been a sharp-shinned hawk. Their markings and behavior are similar, but the time of year was wrong. The female Cooper’s hawk is the size of a crow but the male is not much bigger than a mourning dove —bout the same size as a female sharp-shinned hawk.
Male hawks are smaller than the females which is somewhat unusual in the animal world. Sexual dimorphism usually favors the male of the species with a larger, more powerful physical presence.
Male mammals often win the right to mate with multiple females by challenging and defeating other males whereby the strongest males spread their genes across as many offspring as possible, as opposed to more monogamous species, such as most birds, in which the key to genetic success is helping to ensure the survival of the young by sharing the responsibility for their rearing.
In a way the Cooper’s hawk mate selection process resembles that of spiders — the male can be lunch if he isn’t careful. Female Cooper’s hawks specialize in eating medium sized birds — doves, robins — birds about the size of a male Cooper’s hawk. To be successful and safe a male must be submissive and not approach the female until he hears a call from her signaling her readiness to mate. After mating he is the primary nest builder and provider of food to the female and the chicks until they fledge — about ninety days. He is either a devoted father and partner or simply a male living in fear.
Cooper’s hawks are exceptional flyers. They don’t flit their way through the woods; they tear through limbs and brush at full speed. This aggressive flying is necessary when pursuing birds which can nimbly maneuver through tangled branches, brush, and deadfall. It is a dangerous lifestyle. One study of Cooper’s hawk skeletons found that almost 25 percent of them had healed fractures of their chest bones.
Unlike other hawks, Cooper’s hawks don’t use their beaks as killing weapons. They squeeze their victims with their talons until they are dead, suffocating them like a constrictor snake kills its prey. This is an evolutionary adaptation necessary for a hawk taking prey that is nearly as large as itself. Cooper’s hawks have also been known to drown a victim, holding it under water until it stops moving.
The Cooper’s hawk is one of the species that have benefited from the conversion of their habitat into human living space. Where people go songbirds go. Doves, pigeons, finches all go to easy places to eat — birdfeeders. The open airspace above our backyards provides hawks a better and safer hunting ground than thick and dangerous woods.
Like the one that crashed through the magnolia I see these hawks almost every day. Maybe there are more of them because they are drawn to the prime hunting territory around my birdfeeders. Or maybe I know what to look for and notice them more — once you know what you are looking for, it’s easier to find it. But the thrill of that first discovery is long remembered. I will always be that boy in the woods having a close encounter with an unknown bird.
Rome native Stanley Tate sits on the Berry College Board of Visitors. He retired as executive vice president and chief environmental officer of Southwire and now writes a nature column that appears in several Georgia newspapers. Readers may write him email@example.com.