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  • Patrick Durkin

Cooper’s Hawk is Faring Well in Urban and Rural Wisconsin

Updated: Sep 12

Since moving to Eau Claire about two years ago and setting up our backyard birdfeeders, my wife and I have made regulars out of cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches and bluejays; as well as most woodpecker varieties, from hairy to downy and pileated to red-bellied.


We’ve also made acquaintance with the tufted titmouse, a bird we never saw at our longtime home in Waupaca. We’ve also inherited wrens, which occupy and defend houses left by previous owners; and hummingbirds, which routinely check our neighbors’ and Penny’s flowers and fresh blooms.


Although we bear no grudge, we don’t miss the grackles, starlings, English sparrows and redwing blackbirds that often dominated our Waupaca feeders. And we look forward to the pending return of juncos this fall, of course.


Two birds we’ve missed are the Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks that regularly swept into our yard, occasionally whacking cardinals or mourning doves. When you put out seeds to attract songbirds, you can’t complain if you inadvertently create a target-rich environment for little hawks.


Not everyone appreciates that result, of course. Some folks coo like our state’s mournful “bird of peace” as it pecks sunflower seeds atop the snow alongside juncos and cardinals. Hearts also flutter as finches, chickadees and redpolls flit between tube feeders and perch at our seed buffets.


But then, boom! A Coop or shin flashes in low like a Tomahawk missile behind your house, zips over the lilacs, and obliterates an unsuspecting dove, causing you to urp coffee down your chin.


At least that’s the scene I envisioned the other day when Penny spotted a small hawk in our neighbor’s backyard. It was a Cooper’s hawk, and it seemed puzzled and indecisive as it hopped and walked around. I secretly hoped it was clutching prey in its talons, but no, they were empty. Maybe its target escaped in that micro-second separating life from death.


I left the room to grab my camera when it flew into a nearby oak to perch, giving it a clear view and flight path to our feeders. It patiently sat 10 minutes before growing bored with our feeders and my camera.


I assumed it was a youngster, given its yellow eye ring. As these hawks age, their eye color changes from yellow, to orange to blood-red.


Still, I’m no expert. Identifying a Coop or shin usually takes me awhile. Adult female Coops are crow-sized, and this hawk was a bit smaller than that, though larger than a bluejay or mourning dove. For further comparison, sharp-shinned hawks are roughly one-third smaller than Cooper’s hawks.


When in doubt, which I usually am, I study online pictures and descriptions of Coops and shins – the “in” names for these hawks among accipiter-lovers.


Blush. There I go again, casually dropping words I looked up only seconds before. “Accipiter” is the name for a bird-of-prey group that, in Wisconsin, includes the Northern goshawk, Cooper’s hawk and sharp-shinned hawk.


I’m told not to feel bad about struggling to distinguish Coops from a shins. Ryan Brady, a Department of Natural Resources bird expert in Ashland, routinely assures callers it’s difficult. Both hawks have short, rounded wings and long, rudder-like tails that make them extremely maneuverable in tight quarters. Further, because females of both species are noticeably larger than males, it’s hard to distinguish a male Coop from a female shin.


The sharp-shinned hawk, by the way, is named for its sharp-edged keel on its featherless lower legs.


Professor Bob Rosenfield at UW-Stevens Point has studied Cooper’s hawks since 1980, distinguishing himself as a world-renowned expert on them. He’s been scaling trees and setting nets to study Cooper’s hawks for over 40 years.


He and Brady deal often with folks who dislike these small hawks for staking out birdfeeders for their meals. Wishing them gone, however, is futile. Brady says the only way to make Coops and shins stay away is to quit feeding songbirds. When you attract songbirds, you’re baiting Coops and shins.


He and Rosenfield try to explain that a top-level bird of prey actually benefits songbirds, as a whole. Predation threats increase the songbirds’ diversity and defenses by making them constantly look over their shoulders. It also forces songbird species to select for speed, agility and other traits that improve survival. If the species hadn’t evolved with selective pressure from Coops and shins, they wouldn’t endure in the wild.


Cooper’s hawks tend to target birds the size of robins, cardinals, starlings, sparrows and mourning doves. They also favor the Eastern chipmunk, but female Coops – because they’re bigger than males – can kill pigeons and even gray squirrels. Because shins are smaller, they usually hit birds like juncos, finches, sparrows and chickadees.


Whether you curse or admire Coops and shins, you should credit Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and lawmakers who banned the insecticide DDT nationwide in 1972. Like other raptors whose populations plunged in the 1940s through the 1960s from widespread DDT spraying in agriculture, accipiters once teetered on extinction.


And because Shins and coops are noted forest dwellers, their futures looked bleak as our post-World War II building boom fragmented forests and large woods. But as these hawks rebounded in the 1980s and 1990s, Coops surprised everyone by going urban. Milwaukee hosts Wisconsin’s greatest nesting densities of Cooper’s hawks, and delivers top reproductive success rates. Even so, Rosenfield said rural Wisconsin also offers equally good habitats for these hawks, making the state a generally healthy place for them.


And while researchers have seen woods-dwelling Cooper’s hawks lying atop branches to rest, Rosenfield has seen city-dwelling Coops lying in tilled gardens and manicured lawns like co-eds on beach blankets.


Further, the two birds that urban-dwelling Coops prey on most heavily are English sparrows and starlings, two invasive species that folks like me tend to scorn.


Shins, however, remain more of a secretive bird that nests in boreal forests of the northern Great Lakes, northeastern states and southern Canada. Although they’re found throughout Wisconsin, they’re seen most often when migrating along the southern shoreline of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan’s shorelines in spring and fall. Some stay in Wisconsin all winter, while others continue farther south.


Either way, these two hawks forever follow their prey base: smaller birds. And if their prey leads them to your feeder, sigh and own it. Consider it a small ransom that prey must pay to ensure their species’ survival.

A young Cooper’s hawk prepares to launch from a backyard oak tree in Eau Claire.

Patrick Durkin photos

The Cooper’s hawk is found throughout Wisconsin, making its home in urban and rural environments.

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