Cooper’s hawks belong to a family of birds of prey known as accipiters, meaning that other birds are their main source of food. But what type of birds do Cooper’s hawks hunt, and do they hunt other prey too?
Cooper’s hawks are agile hunters and highly skilled predators. Their diet consists primarily of small and medium birds; small rodents and reptiles may also be pursued and captured. Once caught, the prey is typically squeezed to death by the “bloodthirsty” bird of prey’s razor-sharp talons.
Robins, starlings, thrushes, juncos, and jays are among the Cooper’s hawk’s most commonly caught prey, with doves and pigeons being frequent ambush victims in urban areas.
Hatchlings need to be brought a high volume of prey on a daily basis, so small rodents, squirrels and chipmunks may also be hunted. For more information on the hunting and feeding habits of Cooper’s hawks and their young, keep reading.
Cooper's Hawk feeding on a small bird
Small and medium birds are the preferred prey of Cooper’s hawks. Additionally, Cooper’s hawks may supplement this diet with small mammals, reptiles, and occasionally amphibians, fish and insects.
Birds form almost three-quarters of the Cooper’s hawk’s natural diet, particularly robins, starlings, thrushes, jays, and doves, particularly mourning doves. They will target fledglings and young birds, as well as as nestlings on occasions
Although various bird species form the majority of a Cooper’s hawk’s diet, small mammals are also caught for food. Chipmunks and squirrels are both among the most commonly preyed on mammals. Voles and lemmings are also sometimes taken, but due to their nocturnal activities and Cooper’s hawks being daytime hunters, they do not form a major component of their diet.
Cooper's Hawk in flight
The most common birds preyed on by Cooper’s hawks are passerines, in particular robins, starlings and thrushes. Doves and pigeons also are frequently caught in urban areas, in particular mourning doves. In rural areas, grouse, quails, and pheasants constitute a large percentage of their prey.
A Cooper’s hawk needs to hunt every single day to maintain the fast metabolic demands of its body. An adult bird requires an amount of food equivalent to around 12 percent of its body weight each day.
Cooper's Hawk launching an attack at unsuspecting prey
Cooper’s hawks rely on stealthy methods to stalk and catch live prey. They observe silently, moving between densely covered perches in trees, before swooping at sudden speed to overtake and catch their prey. Cooper’s hawks may also hunt close to ground level, before ambushing unsuspecting prey from behind shrubbery.
Cooper's hawks have a reputation as bloodthirsty hunters. They capture their prey using their sharp talons, squeezing the caught bird or animal repeatedly until it dies.
These ruthless predators have even been known to resort to holding hard-to-kill birds or animals they have caught under water until they drown. Cooper's hawks hold their catch away from their body until it dies, in contrast to falcons, which bite at their caught prey in order to speed up its death.
Cooper's Hawk perched, on the lookout for prey
The most common time of day for Cooper’s hawks to hunt for prey is first thing in the morning. They do continue to hunt during the afternoons, but are far less active the closer it gets to sunset. This is largely due to the need to avoid directly competing for prey with other hawk species.
In winter, Cooper’s hawks may be frequently spotted near backyard bird feeding sites, waiting to ambush the larger congregations of small garden birds that are attracted by the feeders’ contents.
A juvenile Cooper's hawk eating a chipmunk
In spring and summer months, when Cooper’s hawks need to hunt more to meet the demands of their own hungry nestlings, fledglings and young birds from nearby nests are frequently taken. Prey choices widen to include whatever is readily available, and may include young rabbits, gophers, or other small mammals that can be stalked and caught quickly.
Male Cooper’s hawks bring prey they have caught — typically small and medium birds and small rodents — to the nest site, where the female tears off small pieces of meat to feed to the hatchlings. By the third week, parent birds continue to bring prey to the nest, but chicks begin feeding themselves.
An average of 66 prey items are required for each Cooper’s hawk hatchling to reach six weeks of age, after which point food is no longer brought to the nest and fledgling Cooper’s hawks begin to rely on developing their own hunting skills.
Cooper's hawk feeding chicks in the nest
Cooper’s hawks are predatory hunters that feast on live-caught prey, so they are unlikely to be attracted to any food sources supplied by humans. Feeding wild hawks is against the law in many states, as it can impact the ecosystem of an area and impair the birds’ natural hunting instincts.
Due to the sharpness of a Cooper’s hawk’s talons and unpredictability of their sudden swooping dive when hunting, it is not advisable to even attempt to feed one by hand.
Cooper’s hawks gain all the liquids they need from their prey and do not require a source of fresh water to drink. However, they may visit a backyard fountain or birdbath to cool off.
Cooper's hawk having a drink of water
Putting a bird feeder in your backyard is an indirect way of attracting a Cooper’s hawk. As these birds of prey feast on smaller song birds, increasing the number of this type of avian visitor to your garden will maximize your chances of a Cooper’s hawk using your patch as a potential feasting ground.
Keeping chickens is another surefire way to draw Cooper’s hawks to your backyard, but perhaps not a sacrifice many chicken owners would be willing to make.
Cooper’s hawks are carnivores, and survive on a diet of birds, small mammals, and, in arid regions, lizards and other small reptiles. They do not eat plants, nuts or seeds as part of their diet. In riverside regions, fish may also form part of a Cooper’s hawk’s diet, as well as insects taken from river banks or dried-up riverbeds.
Cooper's Hawk with fresh prey
Cooper’s hawks do occasionally catch young jackrabbits and smaller cottontails. Heavier, full-grown rabbits and hares would be too heavy for even adult female Cooper’s hawks to carry off. However, even if a hawk does not kill the animals outright, they can severely injure them.
Cooper’s hawks are not the largest or strongest birds of prey, and domestic cats may prove to be too heavy for them to successfully catch and fly off with. However, if a Cooper’s hawk is especially hungry and the opportunity arises, it may attempt to attack a pet cat.
Squirrels, in particular ground squirrels, tree squirrels, and red squirrels, are among the mammals most frequently hunted by Cooper’s hawks.
Cooper's Hawk perched on a fence in a backyard looking for prey
Cooper’s hawks are also widely known as ‘chicken hawks’, so it’s no great surprise that these ruthless birds of prey do regularly feast on chickens. With chickens unable to fly or quickly run for cover, a full backyard coop is an open invitation to feast for a Cooper’s hawk.
Homes with backyard ponds can be targeted by resourceful Cooper’s hawks, which have been known to observe activity in the water before swooping to catch koi carp and goldfish.
The birds most commonly targeted as prey by Cooper’s hawks are typically smaller and lighter in weight than crows. Fledgling crows are occasionally hunted, if the opportunity arises.
Cooper’s hawks do catch and eat rats, mice, and other small rodents.
Cooper's Hawk in flight with a recently caught Mourning Dove
Pigeons and doves are among the most commonly caught prey of Cooper’s hawks in urban areas. They are one of the largest birds that are frequently hunted by Cooper’s hawks.
Worms do not form a major part of a Cooper’s hawk’s natural diet, but they may be eaten on rare occasions where other, more substantial food sources are not immediately available. A Cooper’s hawk would need a vast supply of earthworms in order to meet its nutritional needs, therefore catching a bird or small rodent would be a more efficient and preferable choice of prey.
Cooper’s hawks may occasionally take small ducks and ducklings, but larger waterbirds may prove too heavy to catch and carry off.
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