The Cooper’s hawk is a common but often misidentified backyard accipiter, and it can easily be confused with the sharp-shinned hawk or other backyard raptors. By learning this bird’s key field marks, it is possible to be more confident as you identify Cooper’s hawks both in your yard and in the field.
Adult Cooper’s Hawk Identification
Both male and female mature Cooper’s hawks look similar, though the females are generally larger. They share the same proportions and field marks, however, and careful study of these birds will yield easy clues to their identity.
- Dark Cap: The mature Cooper’s hawk has a dark grey crown that creates a cap-like effect on the head and contrasts with a slightly paler nape. The rear of the crown may also show a corner depending on the bird’s posture.
- Red Eye: Mature Cooper’s hawks have distinct red eyes with dark pupils.
- Gray Upperparts: The back and wings of the Cooper’s hawk are a medium slate gray color with no notable barring, mottling or other markings.
- Barred Underparts: The breast and abdomen are white with a heavy rufous or rusty-colored barring that can be very dense and extends to the upper legs, though the undertail coverts are plain white.
- Tail Length: The Cooper’s hawk has a noticeably long tail that can make the bird seem even larger or overbalanced. The tail is marked with three dark, broad bars.
- Tail Tip: The tip of the tail is rounded and has a white terminal band. The width of the white tip can vary depending on how worn the feathers are, but it is nearly always noticeable.
- Legs and Feet: The legs and feet are yellow, and while thin, are roughly equivalent to the width of a pencil or child's pinky finger.
- Prey: Birders who are fortunate to see these hawks capture prey can use that prey for identification. While Cooper’s hawks will capture a wide range of small birds, they will also prey on birds as large as mourning doves, Eurasian collared-doves or even rock pigeons, while the smaller sharp-shinned hawk will not routinely take prey as large.
Photo – Adult Cooper’s Hawk © Nick Saunders