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Cooper's Hawks

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In the Spring of 2017, we had the distinct pleasure and honor to watch a pair of Cooper's Hawks mate, build a nest, and  raise a family in San Mateo Campground.  We shared our observatons with fellow winter Camp Hosts, Larry and Gloria Warthen and picture taking with Larry and Dennise Smith.


Cooper's Hawks or Accipiter Cooperii, are native to North America, ranging from Southern Canada to Northern Mexico.  They were once called "Chicken Hawks" by early Americans, as they sometimes targeted domestic chickens for some of their prey.


In the early to mid 20th century, Cooper's Hawks were endangered.  They had been killed by farmers because of chickens.  Later, they died due to DDT poisoning.  Raptors have since rebounded as they are federally protected.  Today there are an estimated 700 thousand Cooper's Hawks in North America.  


Cooper's Hawks are not commonly found in this area, so the discovery of this family was exciting for all of us. 


For More Information About Cooper's Hawks Move To The Bottom of This Section

Cooper's Hawks reminded us of Red Tailed Hawks, only these were quite a bit smaller.  Adults, such as ours, here, were about 15-18 inches long and had wingspans of 2.5-3 ft.  (Females are larger than males.)

They were grey/white on the topside and orange/white on the underside.  Adults have red eyes. 


Cooper's Hawks are difficult to distinguish from Sharp Shinned Hawks.   They are a bit larger than Sharp Shinned, have larger heads, longer tails, and rounded wings.  

We first spotted our Cooper's Hawks in early Spring.  One seemed to be attacking another, which we later understood to be typical mating behavior.  We weren't sure, as Cooper's Hawks tend to be secretive during breeding season, so we didn't see much of them then.


At other times, we saw these small raptors chasing smaller birds, such as morning doves and finches, prey which they normally eat.  They also eat rodents (mostly squirrels at San Mateo), reptiles (snakes and lizards) , and fish.

After mating, the male built the nest.   He built it about 2/3 of the way up the tallest (about 50 ft.) Catalina Cherry tree in the area located in a campsite not too far from ours in San Mateo Campground.  Made of twigs and small branches, it was a good sized nest, about 3 ft in diameter, securely held in a crotch high up in the tree.   We heard, from a Grounds Ranger, who has been working here for more than 15 years, that he has never seen a hawk nest in this campground, so this was an exciting event for him, too.

We read that Cooper's Hawks lay "clutches" of 3 to 6 bluish/white eggs.  Females incubate the eggs for 30-36 days.   So we watched.  We saw a head, the female, peering over the side of the nest for about a month.  

Then one day, we saw:

One tiny little fluffy white head, followed a few days later by another and yet another.

Hatchlings weigh about 1 oz.   and seem made only of white down.  Colors come in as they age.

Hatchlings have eye colors of blue or gray.  As they age, their eyes change to yellow and then to red by the time they are adults.

Mom stayed in the nest pretty much full time for the first couple of weeks, while Dad provided the food.  During that time, we couldn't see much, as the babies were down in the nest, eating and crawling  around the nest.

As they got a little older, Mom flew out to get food for them about 3 times a day.  When they were still small, Mom flew out and caught prey, usually a finch.  Finch were plentiful, as there were two sets of finch feeders set up in the campground.  After catching a finch, she killed it by squeezing.  She then plucked it,  tore it up into small pieces with her sharp beak and talons and fed her babies.

Even when she was busy feeding her babies, Mom was constantly on the lookout for predators, tampering campers, or intruding photographers.

They became braver, climbing higher into the tree.

As they grew into fledglings, the babies climbed up on the edge of the nest to take a look around.

You can see here that the fledglings' colors are coming in.  Their topsides turned first, with the undersides orange turning last.

Braver yet, they got ready to flap their wings.

Now that they were out and about, we were able to get a decent family portrait.  There weren't just three, but four babies!  You have no idea how many times we had to say cheese in order to get them to give us a proper pose!  Dennise named them Eenie, Meaney, Miney, and Moe.

The fledglings practiced flapping their wings, watching each other in the process. 

Sometimes they taunted each other.


"I dare you!" screeched Eenie, one fledgling, to Meanie, a second. 


"I dare you, too, to jump!" echoed Miney. 

They watched each other's flawless attempts at flapping.... well as the flawed attempts.

All of this pretend flying worked up quite the appetites.  Mom had to up her food runs to 4 to 5 times a day.  


She started bringing them more substantial meals, mostly squirrels and one time a snake (yuch).

The meals were delivered dead, but not plucked or stripped of fur.  She taught her babies to do it themselves.

...and Meanie flapped

Eenie flapped... 

... and Miney got lift-off

...while Moe watched.

The fledglings practiced flapping, lift off and hopping around Home Tree.  They did this for about two weeks before they ventured off the Tree.

Meanwhile, Mom was constantly feeding her juveniles (teenagers) who were hungry all of the time.  Now she brought them food and left it for them to fight over and feed themselves.

When she wasn't feeding her juveniles, Mom no longer stayed in the nest.  She spent long periods of time perched in a nearby eucalyptus tree where she could watch Home Tree and her juveniles as well as any predators.

Sometimes she made sounds that seemed to encourage or instruct them to fly.  Other times she seemed to warn them of impending danger, such as the crows which hung around the area.  Other times she seemed to be yelling at them to get back in the nest!  


The crows attracted  the turkey vultures who circled above, just waiting for someone to die.

Meanwhile, Dad, who we hadn't seen much of for awhile, began perching in a dead tree equidistant from Home Tree, so he could watch, instruct, and warn.  Occasionally, he would still bring food to the nest, dropping it off for the juveniles.

Mom and Dad would be around to help feed the babies until they were about 3 months old.

The pictures of Mom and Dad are not to  scale.  Mom is about the size of a crow.  Dad is about 2/3 of her size, a little larger than a morning dove.

But somewhere along the line, while the juveniles were practicing lift off and starting to fly from Home Tree to the nearest tree and back again, one of the juveniles disappeared.  After that, we only saw three.


We never found any remains or even feathers.  We were so sad to lose one of our babies. 

One day Eenie flew from Home Tree to a nearby tree.  After a few minutes, he/she flew to another, very dead tree.


Then Eenie decided he/she wanted to fly home.  But he/she seemed to be trapped by all of the branches he flew into.  Here he/she looked pretty scared.


Dad made sounds of encouragement from his nearby perch.  After 5 to 10 minutes of thinking about it, Eenie found his way out of this horrific tree and flew back to Home Tree. 

After the juveniles had their initial forays out of Home Tree, their confidences rapidly increased.  They were soon flying alone or in pairs from tree to tree to tree, with Mom and/or Dad keeping watch.

Look at this series of pictures.


First there were two... 

...and then there was one...

The juveniles had only been flying for two days.  Look how much older Miney looks!  Most of the gray color has filled in on his topside.  There are still a few patches of white.  And his/her eyes are still gray so you know he/she is still a juvenile.  

And look how fierce Miney looks in these pictures!  From this angle, you can see that he/she still has brown and white stripes on his/her underside.  The orange has not yet grown in.

Now our story ends, as we (Roger, Ellen, Larry, Gloria, Larry and Dennise) left San Mateo for the summer season.  We understand from Bud and Kathy, summer Camp Hosts at San Mateo, that as of late July, the parents and juveniles are still flying around in the area and may/may not be using the nest.

Cooper's Hawks migrate most of the time.  If they do, these hawks will fly to central/southern Mexico for the winter.  When they migrate, they go alone.  In the Fall, juveniles leave first, followed by the adults.

When they return in the Spring, the adults arrive first, ostensibly to breed.  The juveniles follow.  

Cooper's Hawks are monogamus, but not for life, so our Mom and Dad may or may not be together next year.  They tend to return to the same place for breeding and nesting, although they build new nests.  So we hope we can see them again next year!

The oldest Cooper's Hawk found was over 20 years old.  So, if we are lucky, and Nature treats our little Cooper's Hawk family kindly, we might see them for quite awhile!

So, farewell in 2017 to our Cooper's Hawk family!

Dad (above left), Mom (above right), and 3 out of 4 juveniles (below), Eenie, Meanie, and Miney


  • Thanks to Larry and Gloria Warthen for the initial sitings of the Cooper's Hawks.

  • Thanks to Larry and Dennise Smith for sharing their pictures of the Hawks, many of which you see here.

  • Thanks to Marie March, Senior Park Aid, for assisting in closing the campsite where Home Tree was located. 

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