Law of Nature: It’s Always Better to be the Hunter than the Hunted

Mar 8, 2016 by Mike Bibb

DSCN0381Most people probably never give much thought to the daily affairs going on in the animal kingdom. Yet, it’s a fascinating and often dangerous environment.

Recently, a young Cooper’s Hawk – that’s what my neighbor tells me it is – moved into the neighborhood. Previously, I had observed several gray and white feather clusters strewn about, an obvious indication that some unfortunate Mourning Doves had met their demise, but I hadn’t actually seen the perpetrator of these heinous crimes. I just assumed the carnage was the handiwork of a local feline named “Clarence The Cat.”

One day I noticed Clarence lounging in the front window of his owner’s home, indulging in the warm sunshine filtering through the glass and completely oblivious to the presence of several dozen doves foraging in the dry grass. A veritable all-you-can-eat-buffet of avian delights was within a quick leap or two, but Clarence was too intoxicated with his afternoon siesta to pay attention. Besides, catching a dove isn’t that difficult. Catching a good invigorating nap can sometimes be more challenging.

Then suddenly and stealthily a brown and tan colored raptor descended upon the throng of doves, snatched one and quickly flew to a nearby clearing where he commenced to feast on his newly acquired Grade A delicacy. Within a few minutes the meal was completely consumed – bones and all – with only feathers remaining as evidence of the dastardly deed.

I’ve been a hunter most of my life and have taken plenty of doves in the wild, but I have never seen up close Nature’s way of dining in the outdoors. While the hawk obviously enjoyed his freshly caught lunch, it was no picnic for the unfortunate dove.

Not being very familiar with the habits and characteristics of the Cooper’s Hawk, I ran inside, clicked-on the computer and Googled “Cooper’s Hawk.” Seconds later, multiple articles appeared. After perusing half a dozen or so, and learning definitions of several Latin sounding words – Chordata, Accipitriformes and Accipiter for example – I now consider myself to be the precinct’s foremost authority on the life and times of Cooper’s Hawks. In fact, I could probably teach the subject at the district community college.

Anyway, the Cooper’s Hawk obtained its name from William Cooper (1798-1864), a naturalist and one of the founders of the New York Lyceum of Natural History, later the New York Academy of Sciences. The bird is also known as big blue darter, chicken hawk, hen hawk, Mexican hawk, quail hawk, striker and swift hawk.

A medium sized raptor, a male’s average dimensions range from 7.8 to 15.5 ounces in weight, with a length of 14-18 inches. The female is significantly larger, tipping the scales at 12 to 25 ounces and standing 17 to 20 inches tall. Wingspan can vary from 24 to 37 inches.

Common to most birds of prey, they have sharp talons, hooked bills and keen eyesight. Interestingly, a young Cooper’s Hawk eyes – like the one in the picture – are generally yellowish in color, turning to a reddish hue as it matures. Adults have a black/dark brown head cap, with blue-gray upper parts and white/tan underparts with thin reddish bars. Tails are also blue-gray on top with black bands.

These hawks can be found from southern Canada to northern Mexico. In the colder climes of Canada and the northern United States, they will migrate in winter to warmer regions, drifting as far south as Panama. Not knowing if the Cooper’s Hawk in my area is a permanent resident or a winter visitor, I can only assume he probably resides here full time since food and water is plentiful year around. Apparently, they are equally at home in the wild as well as urban settings.

Prolific hunters, Cooper’s Hawks feed on virtually any bird smaller than itself, including robins, thrushes, woodpeckers, starlings, pigeons and doves. They will also supplement their diet with small mammals such as chipmunks, mice, squirrels, bats, lizards, frogs and snakes. They have also been known to prey on songbirds at backyard feeders. Swift in flight, they can snatch a bird in midair, pluck one from the ground or scatter a covey of quail to target a lone victim.

Raising a single brood of three to five kids a year, these hawks are monogamous but usually do not mate for life. The nests, composed primarily of sticks and small branches, are about 30 inches in diameter. Pines, oaks, spruces and other tall trees provide the platform for the nests, located 25-50 feet off the ground, and extend several feet out on a horizontal branch.

Since the ban of chemicals containing DDT and the reduction of hunting because of decreased poultry depredations, Cooper’s Hawks have revived their populations and are now quite common. Their lifespan can be as long as 12 years. The oldest reported hawk lived over 20 years.

With vegetation being rather sparse in the desert regions bordering Rocky Point, the chances of seeing a Cooper’s Hawk is considerably less than witnessing the antics of their local larger raptor cousin, the Osprey. While both are hunters, the Osprey catches and consumes his food – usually fish – in a much more tidy fashion, whereas the Cooper’s Hawks dining etiquette isn’t as refined. It’s not usual to see a Cooper’s Hawk standing amongst piles of feathers as he rips and shreds his MacDove into smaller digestible tidbits.

Some may think this is barbaric. It isn’t. It’s just nature doing what nature does and has been doing since the dawn of time.

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