The Red-tailed hawk soars over open fields on outstretched wings giving its iconic “creeeeeee” call, conjuring images of stagecoaches and coyotes. But New England has another hawk, a smaller, quieter and increasingly common figure in backyards and wooded parks. The Cooper’s hawk is one of three “accipiters” or forest hawks that make New England their home. The smallest of the three is the Sharp-shinned hawk (not much larger than a Blue jay) and the biggest is the Northern goshawk, a fierce-eyed hunter of the deep woods.
The Cooper’s hawk falls in the middle of the three accipiters and with the rise of suburban development, forest edge, and bird feeders has become a happy and increasingly abundant breeder in New England. Unlike the Red-tail’s hunting style of watching for mice and voles from atop a bare tree the accipiters hunt song birds, often taking them midflight, or right off a bird feeder.
The Cooper’s hawk sits upright on the branch like a Parochial school boy. They are built for the chase with stubby wings and a long, narrow tail designed for making quick cuts around trees and shrubs not soaring over fields. In the air the Cooper’s hawk has a distinctive flap-flap-glide flight pattern, giving 2-3 short wing beats broken by a brief respite of gliding. In flight Cooper’s hawks don't always fan their tail like the Red-tailed hawk and are often described as “a flying cross” for their long, narrow body and tail bisected with short stubby wings.
Watch for smaller, vertically perched hawks at the wood's edge or the flap-flap-glide flight pattern indicative of all accipiters. These are the first clues that the bird is not a Red-tailed hawk but most likely a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned hawk. Distinguishing between these two species of accipiters is a real challenge and will be discussed in detail during the fall hawk migration.