Adult Cooper's Hawk. Photo (c) Owen Strickland, Macaulay Library

Adult Cooper's Hawk. Photo (c) Owen Strickland, Macaulay Library

Updated: November 14, 2023
By Andrew Kling

Woodland Wildlife Spotlight: Cooper's Hawk

From Summer 2023 issue of Branching Out. Subscribe to Branching Out here. Read more Woodland Wildlife Spotlights here.

Like many of my generation, I spent a lot of time as a youngster watching television, especially Looney Tunes cartoons. One of the minor characters that showed up from time to time in the Foghorn Leghorn shorts was a little bird named “Henery Hawk,” who, as a chicken hawk, kept going after Foghorn with varying amount of success. I mention this because this issue’s spotlight species, Cooper’s hawk, has several aliases, including the quail hawk, the swift hawk, and… the chicken hawk. Who knew?

While these cartoons had a definite southern states feel to them, you can find Cooper’s hawks in Maryland. Named for naturalist William Cooper, on of the founders of the New York Academy of Sciences, its range stretches from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Most of the birds are non-migratory, staying in their home territory year round.


Cooper's Hawk Basics
Cooper's Hawk in flight Photo (c) Alex Lamoreaux, Macaulay Library
Cooper's Hawk in flight. Photo (c) Alex Lamoreaux, Macaulay Library


Upright posture with a long tail. Adult has bluish-grey upper parts. Black cap, red eyes. Pale underparts with dense reddish bars.


Adult male about 15 inches in length & 8 oz. in weight. Wingspan up to 29”. Females up to 30% larger. 


2-12 years in the wild; oldest recorded banded bird was over 20 years old.

Cooper’s hawks share many of the same attributes of other raptors profiled in this spotlight, such as the American kestrel, sharp-shinned hawk, and red-tailed hawk, females are larger than males. They also demonstrate some of the same flying attributes, flapping their wings a few times and then gliding.

These similarities often make it a challenge for observers. But Cooper’s hawks do have a number of distinguishing characteristics, including a long neck during flight that some have called a flying cross as they glide above open areas or along wooded margins.

However, it’s in the closer quarters of woodlands that Cooper’s hawks truly distinguish themselves from other birds of prey. They will fly at high speeds through cluttered treetops in pursuit of other birds. They will also fly fast to ground level and then swoop over an obstruction to surprise its prey on the other side. It’s a dangerous occupation, as a study of more than 300 Cooper’s hawks skeletons, more than 20% showed old, healed-over fractures in chest bones.

Their diet consists mostly of medium-sized birds such as European starlings, mourning doves, robins, jays, pheasants, grouse, and yes, chickens. In fact, while Cooper’s hawks are woodland birds, some have discovered that human suburbs are prime hunting territory, especially if humans put out bird feeders. According to Cornell University’s All About Birds species profile, “If a Cooper’s Hawk takes up residence in your yard, you can take your feeders down for a few days and the hawk will move on.”

Cooper’s hawks capture and kill their prey with their feet, literally squeezing the life from the victim, rather than killing it by biting as other raptors do. They have also been observed drowning their prey, holding the bird underwater while floating on top.

During this time of year, Cooper’s hawks live solitary lives. Males and females generally do not interact until before breeding season in early spring. Many pairs are monogamous and mate for life. The male selects the nesting spot in a dense woodland, 25-50 feet above ground, in a crotch or on a horizontal branch. The male also does most of the nest building, from sticks and twigs, lined with bark and evergreen needles. The female lays a clutch of 3 to 6 bluish to greenish-white eggs; the eggs hatch after about a month. The female provides most of the incubation while the male hunts and provides her food. Both will care for the hatchlings, which leave the nest after another month or so. The parents continue to provide food until the young become independent at about 8 weeks of age.

Cooper’s hawks populations have rebounded since DDT was banned in 1972. Currently, the greatest threat to their numbers is habitat degradation and loss due to human activity.

Branching Out, Vol. 31, no. 3 (Summer 2023)

Branching Out is the free, quarterly newsletter of the Woodland Stewardship Education program. For more than 30 years, Branching Out has kept Maryland woodland owners and managers informed about ways to develop and enhance their natural areas, how to identify and control invasive plants and insects, and about news and regional online and in-person events.