How to Identify a Cooper’s Hawk

Updated: Jul. 11, 2024

Learn what a Cooper's hawk looks like and sounds like, where to find one. Plus find out where this raptor prefers to nest.

What Does a Cooper’s Hawk Look Like?

Cooper's hawkCourtesy Diana Hernandez
Adult Cooper’s hawk

Adult male and female Cooper’s hawks have a bluish-gray back, blackish cap and white undersides crossed by horizontal reddish barring. The female averages almost one-third larger than the male and has slightly duller colors. Juveniles are brown on the back and have white undersides with dark brown vertical stripes. Their eyes are yellow, turning reddish-orange as they mature into adults.

Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks are notoriously difficult to tell apart, but there are a few things to consider. David Barber, senior research biologist at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pennsylvania, says, “In flight, the sharp-shinned hawks tend to fly more erratically since they are a lighter bird. They flap more.”

He notes that one rule of thumb is, “If you can count the wing beats, it’s probably a Cooper’s.”

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A closeup shows the bird’s reddish eyes and hooked bill

On a perch, David says, “Overall, the Cooper’s is more stocky. It tends to have a bigger head.” He also points out that a Cooper’s tail looks more rounded, while a sharp-shinned hawk’s tail is squared off.

Learn how to identify a red-tailed hawk

Range and Habitat

As a medium-sized Accipiter, Cooper’s hawks are built for flying at high speeds around trees. Look for them forests and open river country throughout the continental United States and the southern regions of Canada.

David says, “One of the really cool things is they are so adaptable. They move into urban areas and tolerate humans really well.”

“They go where the food is,” he explains. There are typically very healthy pigeon and dove populations in urban areas, as well as birds at backyard feeders in suburban areas.

As a partial migratory species, Cooper’s hawks in the northern part of their range will fly south to overwinter as far south as Florida, Mexico and Honduras, using the daylight hours to complete their journey.

Check out essential hawk identification tips for birders.

Nesting Habits and Eggs

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Two recently fledged Cooper’s hawks

As pair bonded mates, David says, “The males come back (to the area) first and set up the territory. They’ll start nesting in early to late April into early May, depending on the area.”

After determining the proper placement of the nest approximately 25 to 50 feet high in a tree, often in a fork, the male is primarily responsible for the nest construction. He gathers sticks to create a structure that is roughly 24 to 27 inches in diameter and at least 6 tall. He then lines it with bark and softer green twigs to make it more comfortable.

The female lays two to six bluish white eggs eggs and is responsible for the 30 to 36 day incubation period, while the male brings her food during this time. Once the fuzzy, down-covered young are born, he continues to hunt for the family.

“They’ll stay in the nest about 35 days,” says David, and the male continues to help feed them until they are about six or seven weeks old.

Falcon vs hawk: learn how to tell the difference.

What Does a Cooper’s Hawk Eat?

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These hawks prey on other birds and small mammals.

“They eat primarily birds,” says David. Medium-sized birds such as American robins, jays, doves and pigeons, and even chicken and quail, are often potential prey. They also eat some mice, squirrels, rabbits and other small mammals.

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Cooper’s hawk perched on a bird bath

Having a top tier predator near your bird feeder is sometimes disturbing to people who feel badly for setting up the birds they love to watch. David says the easiest remedy to dissuade a Cooper’s hawk, or any predatory bird, is to, “Take the feeders inside. Do it for a week or two.”

Without a consistent food source, the hawk will most likely move on to another location.

Don’t miss these simply stunning pictures of hawks.

Songs and Calls

Bird sounds courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology 

Cooper’s hawks are not highly vocal birds outside of the breeding season. A cak-cak-cak is the most common call, and is typically utilized by either sex when protecting the nest or young.

Bnbbyc19 Roger FriedmanCourtesy Roger Friedman
Listen for their cak-cak-cak calls

Otherwise, the male might give a kik call when he flies towards the nest to bring food, and sometimes the female will respond with a whaa vocalization during this time.

Next, find out if hawk sightings have special meaning.

About the Expert

Currently serving as their senior research biologist, David Barber has been with the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary since 1999. With a M.S. in Zoology, he conducts annual bird counts and field research, plus handles their GIS mapping projects, besides being an all-around exceptional naturalist.