adult male coopers hawk Cooper’s Hawks
                                                           Accipiter cooperii

Until the mid-twentieth century, Cooper's hawks were hunted as vermin.

A Life History


Cooper’s hawks were named for William Cooper, a New York scientist whose son James is the namesake of the Cooper Ornithological Society.

The attitude toward Cooper’s hawks has changed, along with the times. Highly respected ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his 1937 work Life Histories of North American Birds, referred to the Cooper’s hawk as a “feathered ferocity.”

Bent quotes William Brewster (1925) with the following:

“While skirting the edge of a deep and heavily-wooded glen on the north side of Upton Hill, half a mile or more from the Lake, I heard on August 4, 1874, a succession of shrill, squealing whistles repeated at frequent intervals. Cautiously approaching the place whence these sounds came, I presently discovered four young Cooper's Hawks not quite fully grown or feathered, and still tufted here and there with fluffy, whitish down, standing close together in a row on a prostrate log. Every now and then one would unfold and raise its wings, flapping them to preserve its balance, as it took a few unsteady steps along the log, at the same time uttering the whistling cries above mentioned. One and all stood very erect when not in motion, and young as they were lacked little if anything of that stern and dignified bearing so characteristic of adult Hawks at most, although by no means all, times. After watching them awhile I shot one, when the three survivors flew heavily up into a spruce where another was promptly killed, the remaining two being permitted to escape.”

Until the mid-twentieth century, Cooper’s hawks were hunted as vermin. Indeed the farmer considered this “chicken hawk” one of his primary foes. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 changed all that and became the Cooper’s hawk’s protection when it was amended in 1972 to include raptors, making it illegal to kill a raptor or take their eggs or even their feathers. During that same time period, chicken farming evolved to the current system in which the chickens are better protected in environmentally controlled facilities; even the suburban farmer with a backyard coop now focuses on other means of protection than his shotgun.

The beleaguered Cooper’s hawk of the early twentieth century became an endangered species in many states, and use of pesticides in the period after World War II further decimated the hawk. With cessation of use of some of the more harmful pesticides, a slow but steady increase in the number of breeding pairs began in the 1960’s to 1970’s. Now, the population has recovered, and the species thrives once more.

Today, instead of regarding the hawk as a “blood-thirsty villain,” it is more fashionable to focus on the Cooper’s hawk’s admirable traits: his agility and speed, his hunting prowess, his feisty attitude. Now, we are more tolerant of his appetite for avian prey.

The search for small birds has drawn many Cooper’s hawks out of the riparian forest and into the suburbs, where bird feeders attract the very prey they seek. Particularly during breeding season, when the male is responsible for the hunting, small passerines are an easy target for a hungry family. Thus, today the once elusive Cooper’s hawk is becoming more and more commonplace in the suburbs and greenbelts of urban areas.

Next Chapter: Range