Cooper's hawk gorged on goldfinch

Someone had enjoyed their breakfast long before I arrived at the kitchen table. The juvenile Cooper’s hawk sitting on the fence by the feeders looked anything but lively. It not only didn’t look hawk-like, it looked like a caricature of that “sleepy old owl” that’s been living it up in the moonlight. It also resembled a stuffed boa constrictor.

I was a bit concerned when the fence-sitting hawk was first spotted. It just sat there all hunched up, as if it didn’t feel well. Upon closer study it appeared the bird was suffering from “I ate the whole thing” syndrome. It was stuffed with one of our birds. The bulging crop suggested a good-sized mouse was tucked inside. Strong evidence revealed the truth. A close look through the binoculars showed at least three feathers protruding from both sides of the glutton’s beak.

The goldfinch mob that has been growing fat on sunflower and thistle seeds may be missing one of their number. Feeders that have been buzzing with activity for weeks stood empty of life. Even the popular bird bath had no bathers. The word had gone out that a hunting hawk was in the area.

The party responsible for all of this tension seemed unaware of the turmoil it had created. It closed its eyes, tucked its head between its shoulders and went to sleep. The bird was so satiated by its morning hunting it looked like it had put away two goldfinches. I’ve seen red-tailed hawks do this when hunting bats but can’t imagine a backyard-hunting hawk doing the same.

While the hawk slept or occasionally awakened to look around before it nodded off again, it presented an opportunity to really study a beautiful bird. Its head was the most interesting. The Cooper’s hawk looks so much like the smaller sharp-shinned that sometimes there is a problem in separating the two. Always look at the bird’s head. The sharp-shinned is small-headed, but the Cooper’s has a large head that looks even larger because of the way it “styles” its feather-do. If you remember the “fifties” hairstyle worn by young men, you know what I mean. The swept-back DA is a good description of the Cooper’s hawk’s head feathers. They’re arranged like a crest that has slipped down the back of the bird’s head.

This hawk had magnificent head feathers. A pronounced ring of white was washed through the slipped crest. A small amount of pale head feathers can be seen on illustrations of both adult and juvenile Cooper’s hawks but this bird’s head was like something I have never seen before. It even suggested a touch of albinism. Studying the hawk at close range through the binoculars allowed me to see what a field guide illustrator sees when he holds a dead bird study skin in his hand to copy feather details.

Clearly, the white head feathers were eye-catching but so were the bird’s breast feathers. They looked as if someone had taken a pen-like paintbrush to draw each brown feather on the bird’s white breast. At the end of each fine downward stroke, a rounded feather-drop was hung.

No one enjoys having one of their birds eaten by a hawk but that doesn’t change the fact that hawks are programmed to eat birds. When one of these hunters stays around for a while, the opportunity to know them better arises. It can be a fascinating study – if it doesn’t last for a week or more.

Write to Joan Carson, PO Box 217, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply.