Cooper’s Hawk Identification

If you live in North America, chances are you might live near a Cooper’s Hawk. You might be lucky enough to spot a Cooper’s Hawk darting through trees in search of prey, or you might see one perched. 

Will you be able to tell it apart from other similar looking hawks? Keep reading to discover how to identify this elusive bird of prey by its shape, color, size, flight and how to distinguish it from other hawks and birds of prey.

Size, Shape and Color

The Cooper’s Hawk is a medium-sized raptor, between 14 to 20 inches long from beak to tail, roughly the size of a rolling pin. They’re a similar size to a crow and can be found year-round. Adults have a large head with a crown that can look black in certain lights. Their backs are gray/blue with a white underside, while their chests have horizontally streaked rufous bars.

Their long tail has three black bands, while the outer tail feathers are shorter than the rest, giving the tail a slightly rounded appearance. Apart from size and a few other characteristics, this long tail can really help distinguish the Cooper’s Hawk from the Sharp-shinned Hawk, another common American bird of prey.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk perched on a branch with green behind

Distribution

The Cooper’s Hawk is wide-spread across the United States, favoring wild deciduous forests, but is also found in suburban and urban areas. Cooper’s Hawk can be found across the states and they are the most common accipiter in the USA.

Cooper's Hawk Male and Female

Males and females look very similar, but females are about one-third larger than males. This size difference is not always noticeable in the field. To tell them apart, remember that adult females can have more orange on their cheeks than the males. (They put on a little bit of blush!)

Immature and juvenile birds are brown above with thin brown vertical streaks stretching from just below their neck to stomach. Cooper’s Hawk have bright yellow eyes when they’re young and as they grow older, their eyes turn orange, then red.

Side-by-side annotated comparison graph of male, female and juvenile Cooper's Hawk with description of identification features

Flight

In flight, Cooper’s Hawks exhibit a flap-flap-glide pattern, typical of accipiters. Even when crossing expansive open areas, they rarely flap continuously when hunting. During the breeding season, adults often fly with flared undertail coverts (American Goshawks also do this too).

Diet

When targeting their prey of small birds, they fly fast and low to the ground, then up and over an obstruction to surprise their target on the other side. In addition to a diet of small birds, this species also feeds on small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks (if they can catch them!). 

As male Cooper’s Hawk are slightly smaller, their prey is predominantly smaller birds and small mammals. As the females are much larger, they can take down larger prey, like Mourning Dove and Pigeons.

Vocalizations

The vocalizations of Cooper’s Hawk are unique. Learning their suite of calls will allow you to be aware of the bird’s presence even when they are feeling a little shy. They are often heard giving a rapid series of “kek, kek, kek, kek”. To listen to the call of the Cooper’s Hawk, find this in Birda’s Species Guide

You might be looking for Cooper’s Hawks near you, and the best place to find out is by heading to the Birda app. If you’re looking for a great app to begin and track your birdwatching journey, Birda might be just for you. Join challenges, earn badges, post sessions and connect with other birders. Find out more about the Birda app.

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Similar Species to Cooper's Hawk

Despite being one of the most common backyard raptors in the US, many birders can confuse the Cooper’s Hawk for other species, like the smaller Sharp-shinned Hawk or the scarcer and larger American Goshawk. These three species are closely related and belong to the genus Accipiter, but there’s a few different ways to tell them apart.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Even experienced birders have mistaken the Cooper’s Hawk with the similar Sharp-shinned Hawk. Compared to Cooper’s, adult Sharp-shinned Hawks have a proportionally smaller head and a somewhat squared tail, two key field marks that can also be used to identify these species in flight. Sharp-shinned Hawks have noticeably thinner, sharper-looking legs.

Side-by-side annotated comparison graph of male and female Cooper's Hawk vs Sharp-shinned Hawk, including description of key identification features

Unlike Cooper’s Hawk, the crown of the Sharp-shinned Hawk does not contrast with the nape (area directly behind the bird’s head). Adults in flight do not exhibit flared white undertail coverts.

When comparing immature birds, body proportion differences remain the same. Sharp-shinned Hawks have brown heads and denser streaks on their chests, contrasting with their backs’ cold brown. Immature Cooper’s Hawk have thin, dark streaks on their chests, the same colors as their backs.

American Goshawk

While similar, the American Goshawk is larger, bulkier and more fierce than the Cooper’s Hawk. With a strong white eyebrows, longer wings, and shorter squared tail, the American Goshawk is overall larger. The American Goshawk measures roughly 20 to 25 inches, from beak to tail, much larger than the 14 to 20 inches of the Cooper’s Hawk. The undertail coverts of the American Goshawk are streaked, whereas the Cooper’s Hawk has white and unstreaked undertail coverts.

Side-by-side annotated comparison graph of male and female Cooper's Hawk vs American Goshawk with description of identification features

Something else to consider when identifying your hawk is that the American Goshawk is much more scarce and has a more northerly range. This species is restricted to Canada and the northern United States. In the Rocky Mountains and further west, their range stretches as far south as Mexico, albeit in high elevations.

Other Hawk Species

Birders can sometimes confuse other raptors for Cooper’s Hawk. Buteos like Broad-winged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, and Red-shouldered Hawk differ in various ways, but one key differentiator is the much longer tail of the Cooper’s Hawk (and other accipiters). 

While the Red-tailed Hawk is similarly widespread, the striking red tail is a great feature to keep an eye out for. The Broad-winged Hawk is only in the east of the US and Canada during the breeding season, except for a small wintering population at the extreme southern tip of Florida. After breeding, the Broad-winged Hawk migrates to Northern South America.

Looking to further your Hawk Identification? Read more here.

Interesting Facts

Here are some interesting facts about the Cooper’s Hawk:

  • Cooper’s Hawks are now common urban and suburban birds. Some studies show their numbers are higher in towns than in their natural habitat, forests. Cities provide plenty of dove and pigeon prey. However, one study in Arizona found a downside to the high-dove diet: Cooper’s Hawk nestlings suffered from a parasitic disease they acquired from eating dove meat.
  • Its flight profile resembles a “flying cross.”
  • In the mid-1900s, shooting, trapping, and using harmful pesticides led to a significant decline in the eastern populations of the Cooper’s hawk. Due to this, many states and some Canadian provinces listed this species as threatened or endangered until their populations rebounded.
  • Dashing through vegetation to catch birds is a dangerous lifestyle. In a study of more than 300 Cooper’s Hawk skeletons, 23 percent showed old, healed-over fractures in the chest bones, especially the furcula, or wishbone.
  • Males tend to be submissive to females and to listen out for reassuring call notes the females make when she’s willing to be approached.
  • Males build the nest and provide nearly all the food to females and young over the next 90 days before the young fledge.
  • The oldest recorded Cooper’s Hawk was a male at least 20 years and 4 months old. He was banded (ringed) in California in 1986 and found in Washington in 2006.

Conclusion

Though identifying a Cooper’s Hawk might seem tricky, the next time you see a hawk, you’ll know just what to look for. Keep practicing and if you’re still unsure, there’s a great place you can go to check your hawk identification and better your ID skills quickly. 

Not sure what bird you’re seeing? Download the Birda app and ask the birdwatching community for help. Take a picture and log your bird as Unidentified and other birders will help you with species suggestions plus tips and tips to identify that bird in the future.

The Birda app is a great way to get involved with nature and connect to birders all over the world. Join challenges, earn badges, keep track and look back on your bird sightings, and find Birda’s integrated species guide, useful when you’re unsure of a bird identification.

Male Cooper's Hawk perched on a branch - Daniel Sloan

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