A Year in the Life of a Cooper’s Hawk

By Brodie Cass Talbott, Educator and Trips Specialist

On a mid-April Saturday I walked down to Woodlawn park, and for the second time in two visits, found a Cooper’s Hawk. On this morning, a large brown Coop flew overhead, quickly joined by a smaller darker bird, the adult male, who landed next to her, presented her with a bird, and mated. Notably, the female was a first-year, which is uncommon: according to Birds of the World, only 8% of successful breeding females are yearlings. 

So naturally, I kept an eye on her. The next time I visited, I found the nest in the top of an old elm, and the next time after that she was incubating. Finally, in late June, I saw three white fuzzy heads pop up. The yearling had successfully hatched young! 

When the hot weather hit, I feared the worst. These birds would be too small to get their own water, and, in that heat, I worried the mother wouldn’t be able to provide her young with enough. But, on the hottest day, my wife mentioned that a woman had put down a water tray in the park, and a baby bird had been seen visiting it. 

A fledgling Cooper's Hawk perches on a tree.
Photo by Brodie Cass Talbott

So the next morning I wandered to the park to see how the young bird was doing. Not long after I arrived I heard a squealing and saw a flash overhead, looking up and finding the female as the recipient of another meal from her mate, in the form of a chickadee. If she still had young, she would no doubt visit them soon with food. I watched as she ate the first half of the bird, and then took off, carrying it across the park. From her next high perch, she took a few more bites, looked around a bit, and then took the rest of the bird down to a thicker rhododendron. Nestled in the dark interior of the foliage were three baby coops! They all had brown flight feathers and contours, but still with their ridiculous white heads. 

I was amazed that the female was able to keep her three young alive through the heat dome. But I was also amazed to see such young looking birds out of the nest. In my experience, juvenile raptors have fully feathered heads by the time they leave the nest. A thought popped into my mind: Had these birds fledged prematurely because it got too hot? Had the mother coaxed them to the water? I imagined them being called to, and eventually jumping, and rather gracelessly flopping their way down the ground, getting their fill of water, and then being coaxed back into the rhododendron by their mother, eager to recreate the nesting environment with them in a cooler, darker place. Maye next year she’ll just start there and save herself the move…

(As a note, providing wildlife with a shallow water source like a bird bath can be helpful. However, we don’t ever recommend soaking birds with water, as they depend on their feathers being dry to protect them and help them thermoregulate.)

With their flight feathers only partially grown, first attempts at flight are particularly awkward at this young age. Photo by Brodie Cass Talbott
An adult Cooper's Hawk perches on a branch. The bird's back is to the camera and she is looking to the side.
The yearling female Cooper’s Hawk moves towards the roost location of her young, with the kill provided by her mate. Looking carefully, one can see the gray feathers of adult plumage growing in among the brown feathers of immature plumage, identifying this bird as one year old. Photo by Brodie Cass Talbott

But looking at her, I was also amazed at the life she’s had so far. Breeding Cooper’s in Portland are likely resident (meaning they don’t migrate), and she was born possibly nearby, just over a year ago. After a month of being out of the nest, slowly learning to fly, and hunt, she starts to receive less and less food from her parents. Eventually, probably in August of last year, she struck out, or was driven out by her parents, in search of new territory.

By September, she would be on her own, without a partner, in a somewhat new territory when smoke hits. For eight days, the sky is by turns red, orange, gray, and hangs with acrid smoke. Somehow she processes the world’s worst air in her hyper efficient bird lungs and system of air sacs. Then, months later, likely as she is perhaps sizing up an older male, snow hits. Lots of snow. The snow stays on the ground for days, and the Cooper’s Hawks gather at bird feeders, waiting for easy meals. The weather gets down to the teens at night, so to keep the metabolism fueled, she must successfully hunt every day.

Then, after defying the odds and successfully hatching chicks, the weather strikes again, with three record-breaking days of 108-116 degree days. Being able to find water is easy enough for an adult, but a challenge to transport to a nest. 

I noticed a dead crow chick, nearly full-grown, on my nightly walk to the park to check on the family. Likely a victim of the heat. Arriving at the park, my wife and I looked for the adults, but they were nowhere to be seen. All three kids were, though, patiently waiting for food in their same little rhododendron. 

Every bird conservationist I ask comes back with the same answer to the question of the greatest threat to birds; climate change. 

Birds will adapt to change, but that adaptation comes at the price of many who didn’t survive (and many species may not adapt fast enough to escape extinction). So far this female has survived a smoke storm, snow storm, and heat storm in just her 12 months of life. How many didn’t? And how many more extreme weather events can she survive?