Cooper’s hawks are year-round residents of New Mexico

Illustration by Cathryn Cunningham/Journal

There are many hawk species throughout New Mexico. One of the most common and widespread is the Cooper’s hawk.

This medium-sized hawk is 16.5 inches long with a wingspan of 31 inches. Juveniles have a brownish back with dark streaking on the breast. The adults have a grayish back with rusty streaking on the breast.

The Cooper’s wings are fairly short and they have a relatively long tail compared with other hawks. These wing and tail proportions allow it to quickly dart through dense vegetation when chasing prey.

The Cooper’s hawk is a year-round resident in much of New Mexico, and prefers rural woodlands, urban parks with large trees and suburban backyards.

The Cooper’s diet consists mainly of small to medium-sized birds, but it will also eat small mammals, such as squirrels and mice. Cities such as Albuquerque provide a steady source of dove and rock pigeons for the Cooper’s hawk.

This hawk uses the element of surprise when hunting its prey, usually coming out of nowhere to engage in a high-speed pursuit through tree branches and other vegetation as it chases a bird. It captures its prey with its feet and kills by repeatedly squeezing.

If a Cooper’s hawk is in the area, other birds will often send out the alarm with a loud, distressed call alerting nearby birds to take cover. If you feed the birds in your backyard, you have probably witnessed this behavior. Darting at high speeds through dense vegetation chasing prey can be dangerous. In a study of more than 300 Cooper’s hawk skeletons, 23% showed old, healed fractures in the chest bones.

The female Cooper’s hawk is larger than the male. The smaller male must be careful not to fall prey to the female. During mating season, the male is submissive to the female and listens closely for her to make sounds denoting she is approachable.

The male builds the nest, as well as feeds the female and the young until the young leave the nest. The nest is usually about 25 to 50 feet up in large deciduous trees and pines. The male builds a fairly large cup-shaped nest that is approximately 27 inches wide and 6-to-17-inches high.

The Cooper’s hawk population is currently stable, thanks in part to public education of the important role hawks play in our ecosystem and the banning such pesticides as DDT in the 1960s.

Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque. She is a lifelong birder and author of “For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to your Backyard.”

 

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