A Cooper’s Hawk on Ocracoke Island. Photo: P. Vankevich

To read more profiles on the Birds of Ocracoke, click here

By Peter Vankevich

From fall into winter is the best time to see hawks on Ocracoke. They can be found perched in trees, in rapid flight or dashing after their prey, usually another bird.

One of these species here would be the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), which this writer has seen almost daily for the past few weeks perching in a long leaf pine next to his home not far from the island’s lighthouse. A look at this hawk’s history reveals how they were once hunted mercilessly, regardless of the season, and their numbers were greatly diminished.

Named in 1828 after the New York ornithologist William C. Cooper, these hawks are part of the genus accipiter which are narrow-tailed forest dwellers with excellent vision and capable of moving rapidly through trees to catch prey.

World-wide there are 47 accipiter species and three in North America: Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk and Northern Goshawk, the last of which is rare in eastern North Carolina. 

Another genus of hawks is buteo. These are birds with broad wings, short tails and tend to soar in search of prey in open spaces and largely feed on ground dwelling animals. Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks are buteos. Buteos descend or pounce on their prey rather than hunting in a fast horizontal pursuit like accipiters and falcons, another genus.

Depending on its age, the Cooper’s Hawk’s appearance varies. They all have short, rounded wings and long, prominently banded tails seen in flight. Adults have a black crown, blue/gray back and pale breast with thin, reddish barring, an orange or red eye iris and bright yellow legs. In flight the tail bands are prominent, and the underwings are pale gray.

Juvenile birds have yellow eyes, dark streaks on the breast and white spots on the upper dark brown backs.

Females are significantly larger than males and have a slightly drabber plumage.

In flight, Cooper’s Hawks often glide followed by a rapid series of wing beats.

A Cooper’s Hawk in water by the side of NC 12, Ocracoke. Photo: P. Vankevich

This sounds like a fairly easy identification except it is also closely describes another accipiter that can be seen on Ocracoke this time of the years, the smaller Sharp-shinned Hawk. So accurate identification can be difficult.

One description of the difference in size between these two hawks is the Cooper’s is similar to a crow and a “sharpie” is similar to a Blue Jay.

A female Cooper’s and a male Sharp-shinned may be easiest to identify based on size, but a female Sharp-shinned, also much larger than the male, can be almost the same size as a male Cooper’s.

Here are a few other field marks to help with identification. The Cooper’s hawk has a larger head that is block-like, while a Sharp-shinned Hawk has a smaller, more rounded head. The end of the tail of a Cooper’s hawk is typically rounded, while a sharp-shinned hawk has tail feathers with a straight edge

Cooper’s preferred prey are larger songbirds and doves and, to a lesser degree, small mammals such as chipmunks and squirrels.

The increased presence of these hawks in Ocracoke village in the past few years may be due to the large population of Eurasian Collared Doves that did not exist here 20 years ago.

Cooper’s Hawks can be found in most of the contiguous United States into southern Canada. 

Northern birds migrate south in the fall and others remain year-round in their locations or migrate in varying distances, some as far as Central America. Historically, their habitat has been deciduous, mixed and coniferous forests, smaller woodlots and farm areas.

In recent years, these hawks have expanded into suburban and even urban areas where there is suitable vegetation such as wooded city parks.

After courtship, both spend about two weeks building their concealed nests, usually in tall trees. Up to five eggs are laid in April. Incubation, for 30 to 35 days, is done by the female, but the male will spot her a few times a day while she feeds on prey delivered by the male at a nearby transfer perch.

Born atricial with all-white natal down, the young take about 30 days to fledge.

Outside of the breeding season, Cooper’s Hawks tend to be silent. During courtship and in defense of the nest their call is a loud, grating cak-cak-cak, lasting 2 to 5 seconds made by both sexes

Males frequently make a kik call to tell their mates where they are; females make this call too, but less often. Females make a whaa call when approaching or receiving food from males.

These days, birds of prey, also called raptors, have many admirers. Many people take delight in seeing a Peregrine Falcon, a Red-shouldered Hawk or a Bald Eagle. This was not always the case.

Historically these birds were branded as “pests” and “villains” by farmers and hunters because some killed poultry and game birds.

Some bird lovers did not like them because they killed songbirds.  Neltje Blanchan, a popular nature writer in her widely read “Birds that Hunt and are Hunted” (1898), wrote that the Cooper’s Hawk “lives by devouring birds of so much greater value than itself that the law of survival of the fittest should be enforced by lead until these villains…adorn museum cases only.”

As late as 1937, Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his multi-volume “Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds,” wrote: “It (Cooper’s Hawk) is essentially the chicken hawk, so cordially hated by poultry farmers, and is the principal cause of the widespread antipathy toward hawks in general.”

In 1885, Pennsylvania enacted a hawk-and-owl bounty law in 1885, which provided for the payment of 50 cents for the scalp of any hawk or owl. Within two years, 180,000 scalps were cashed in including scalps of many Cooper’s Hawks. The law was quickly repealed when a study concluded that Pennsylvania had paid $90,000 in bounty money to save its farmers from a total loss of less than $2,000. Other states with similar bounty laws were also eventually repealed, but it would take many years to see these birds’ value to the ecosystem.

Another reason for the Cooper’s Hawk’s decline began in the late 1940s when use of environmental contaminants, such as DDT, for agricultural purposes caused eggshell thinning and nest failure for many raptors most notably Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons.

After prohibition of DDT use in North America and protection from hunting in 1972 when the United States entered into the Migratory Bird Treaty Act with Mexico, the population increased exponentially in the 1980s and 1990s and is believed to have now stabilized.

In The North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), the population was estimated at 800,000 individuals for the United States and Canada from 2005 to 2014.

Best Time to see: Cooper’s Hawks migrate through the Outer Banks starting in September, peaking in October. Some will winter here and seem to be increasing. Spring migration is not particularly notable and they are not present in summer. The Ocracoke Christmas Bird Count, which has taken place at the end of December every year since 1981, usually reports just a couple.

Where: Wooded areas near the Park Service campground, in the village and at Springer’s Point. They will often perch in high trees.

Listen: Click here to go the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Click here for the Birds of the Outer Banks Checklist 

Migrating Cooper’s Hawk passing through Ocracoke Island. Photo: P. Vankevich
Previous articleMulti-hazard coastal storm on the way
Next articleNC Hazard Mitigation Team to assist with FEMA documentation


  1. We were often entertained by a Cooper’s Hawk in our postage stamp sized back yard in West Scranton, PA. The many sparrows that frequented our feeders would announce the presence of a Cooper’s with a chorus of sparrow screams. The sparrows would make their way into the thick hedges and bushes. The hawk would often follow them by diving headfirst into these sanctuaries. On occasion the Cooper’s were successful. Other times they would perch right on top of the bush or hedge, apparently, IMHO, attempting to scare the sparrows into attempting to flee. Once I had to explain with a video for our neighbor what the mess of feathers was on his front porch where a Cooper’s Hawk had plucked a Rock Pigeon, and then, somehow, carried that carcass away to finish the meal. Regrettably, I missed this feat of aeronautical strength having back in the house momentarily. I was amazed since the weight of the pigeon, even when plucked, must have rivaled the hawks’: Rock Pigeon average weight = 238–380 grams (8.4–13.4 ozs.); Cooper’s hawk average weight = 220–410 grams (male; 7.8–14.5 ozs.), and 330–680 grams (female; 11.6–24.0 ozs.). I remember this as a large Cooper’s so probably a female, but even the largest females would have been lifting a prey between 1/3 and 1/2 of their own body weight. Observing them flying crazily around obstructions is a sight to behold that led me to nickname them “The F-14 Tomcat of the bird world.”

Comments are closed.