January 16, 2013 • 3:22 pm

Exactly 22 minutes ago a student sent this email around to the department:

Hey everyone!

I just looked out my office window and there is a big, raptor-looking bird on one of the trees next to botany pond. It’s in a big tree on the west side of the pond, between Erman and Culver.  It’s about half way up and on the east side of the tree (facing Erman).  It is just hanging out if anyone wants to see some biodiversity!

Of course I rushed downstairs. grabbing my camera. At first I couldn’t see anything, but then someone pointed to a blob on a branch (click all photos to enlarge):


Well, I posted this first as a peregrine falcon in my enthusiasm, but after looking it up it’s clearly not.

UPDATE: several readers and two ornithologists have identified this as a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). My colleague Steve Pruett-Jones adds this:

The bird is a Cooper’s hawk. Likely a female, but sex is a little hard to tell from a photograph, without a size reference. Females are 40-60% bigger than males in this species. The overall posture, the relative size, plus the shape of the tail indicates that the bird is NOT a sharp-shined hawk. Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks look very similar except for size, shape of tail, etc.


It may be a kestrel, but I’ll let a reader identify it. At any rate, I’ve never gotten so close to one before. It was wary, but not overly nervous.  And its eyes were red!


Such a magnificent animal.  It flew to a tree, stayed for a while (I fear that I might have driven it away) and then winged off, presumably looking for food.

One swallow does not a summer make, but one hawk can make a day.


43 thoughts on “Raptor!

    1. Jerry, peregrines and kestrels and other falcons have long pointed wings. North American falcons almost all have very distinctive black markings under their eyes, like football players (and probably for the same reasons). Accipiters like Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks have very short rounded wings. So when they fly, falcons are easy to distinguish from accipiters (which belong to a very distant clade from the falcon clade).

      Also no falcon I know has red eyes, but many accipiter species do.

    2. My brother Paul, who lives in Wisconsin near the Illinois border, told me that Cooper’s Hawks in his yard appear to have learned to scare birds off his birdfeeder into his big window. The hawk then grabs the stunned birds.

      1. I saw someone on this blog in the comments section several months ago get an award for most comments answering himself. Lou, were you the winner?

        All kidding aside, these photos are great. It’s neat that these birds are coming back into urban areas.
        I think there are more of these hawks than in recent years, at least in the Midwest, but that is just my experience; haven’t seen any figures.

        I have had one hanging around all winter, and a few wks. ago I went to the window to see why no birds at birdfeeder, and in the process scared a Downy off the adjacent wall of the house where he had been hiding from the hawk I didn’t know was there. Within a flash of an eye I heard swawking and saw a feather fly, then the hawk carried him to a log in my plain sight where I watched with some dismay and regret the Downy being plucked while still squawking. I had to leave for a minute or two, as I am not fond of watching that part of nature any more! But I know the hawk needs nourishment, and I must say, the Downys have been working on my wooden house an awful lot this year so there are no longterm tears shed here : )

          1. Lou I want to apologize for my rather lame attempt at humor.

            I do really value the information that you and the other scientists give on this website. I am not good at commenting and usually just read and learn…something that I will now get back to doing.

            1. No, please!! I liked the comment, and took no offense at all. You will have to imagine the little smile I had on my face as I was reading it. I know it is easy to misread the tone of short comments (and it has sometimes happened to my own comments and emails) but this risk should not stop you from commenting. Your story was interesting too.

              1. Thanks.
                Glad it was okay.
                I am ambivalent about blogs and commenting. I never know who to address comments to, or who is going to take great offense at even the slightest misplacement or incorrect use of words.
                I have read that it is generally not wise to attempt humor in the written word… even professional writers know this. Humor is very tricky, esp. without body language.
                Well, thx again.

              2. Not to worry, jesse! It’s not-a-blog!

                And we have quite a good bit of humor ’round these parts.

  1. PS. It looks like a sharp shinned hawk. They (or at least one) make reasonably regular trips to our bird feeders to feed on birds. It (they) will also perch on the rail of the deck while the downy woodpeckers hold very still clinging to the uprights an everyone else makes themselves scarce for a while.

  2. Both are local species, but this bird is definitely a Cooper’s Hawk, not a Peregrine Falcon. Aside from plumage differences, notice that distinctive red eye! Cool picture!

  3. Sorry to be the killjoy but that’s actually not a Peregrine. Nor is it a falcon. It is either a Cooper’s Hawk or Sharp-shinned Hawk, both in the genus Accipiter. Hard to tell from a photo since size is difficult to judge and the two species overlap in size due to the sexual dimorphism in size (female Sharp-shinned Hawks can be slightly larger than male Cooper’s) I’m not that good at distinguishing them in the field but both are relatively common throughout the year where I am in Mississippi and I’m guessing that may also be true for Illinois. And they are clearly quite similar to Peregrine’s, no doubt about it. Here is a link to a photo of a Peregrine that isn’t all that different from the posted photos of the Accipiter: http://www.hawkquest.org/mews/Anatum_Peregrine_Falcon_%28Male%29.shtml

    1. We must live in the same neck of the desert, Avis; Verdins routinely occur outside my window too. They’re mysterious little birds, and wondering about them regularly keeps me awake at night.

  4. Hi,

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but, that’s a very fine example of a Cooper’s Hawk. I work with peregrines, & have done for some years for Idaho Fish & Game. People very often confuse rufous Cooper’s with anatum peregrines. Best indicator, other than it being a falcon & not a hawk, is the head. Cooper’s have a cap, peregrines a hood. Dark eyes on a peregrine, brilliant copper-orange on a Cooper’s. Watch the shape of the wing – a PEFA will favour a military jet. If my ID picture is showing up on your end of this e-mail, that’s a fledgling peregrine in my hands this past July 13th, after my intern & I rescued her from Happy Hour at a rather posh restaurant. I’m serious, it was a scream.

    I do love that you get excited about raptors on what seems to be a regular basis. I also love this blog, & your book was great fun. Keep it coming. Feel very free to pepper me with raptor questions. If there’s something I can’t do on my own, I’ll grab someone who can.

    best, Anna Taaffe Idaho Master Naturalist North American Falconers Association

    1. Anna et al; Adult Female Cooper’s (as for the rounded tail = male, well all Coop’s have rounded tail) Adult – Banded tail, with distinct white terminal tail band visible in first photo, red eyes (in second photo). Male ? female? since both are close in size, sexual dimorphism (female being larger) is the only way to tell, but off the cuff I would say female from the pics with the visual “thickness of the shoulders which tells me a large (common for the region) Adult female Coopers hawk (Accipiter cooperii)…I specialize in Trans-border Indicator Species (focus peregrine / Gyr falcons) and chemical burdens: BDEs, PCBs (and other POPs which are found in raptors and humans). With all the raptors I have had in hand, I give my semi-educated evidence based opinion…great photos for I.D., nice job getting perspective and aspects


      Byron Crow


  5. I am pretty sure those are the hawks known for swooping down on the heads of people who walk near their nests.

    We had to close down a mountain bike trail a few years ago because one nested right on the trail and would attack anything that went by. Bike helmets offer good protection, but hikers are more at risk.

    Pretty sure it was a Cooper’s Hawk.

  6. Definitely a Cooper’s Hawk. My wife and happened to look out a window this morning just as one made a pass at our feeders. A fascinating sight. After scaring the tail feathers off a bunch of sparrows, juncos and finches, it perched for a few moments on a nearby tree limb. Unfortunately, it flew off before I could grab my camera.

  7. Great photos, Dr. C!

    I wish I were as lucky as you to get a shot on Monday of the same kind of hawk that was in the middle of a kill … took down a dove that was feeding in my garden.. there were feathers everywhere! They like to catch a bird and then fly up and perch on the fence to eat. Amazing.

  8. Here in Pittsburgh several years ago, 2 peregrine falcons nested atop the Gulf building downtown. These birds built a nest and raised their young right on top of the building in the middle of the city. Of course, city officials wanted to remove the birds, but popular outcry caused the officials to relent and let the birds stay. They were beautiful birds!

  9. Very nice.
    I’m not a birder myself, but even this geologist can get his rocks somewhat “off” on seeing an osprey hunting in the lake he’s washing in (a good hundred miles beyond it’s reported range), or a (juvenile) golden eagle cruising past me at eye-level as I walk along a mist-clad path on a steep mountain side.
    I wonder what seagull tastes like. They must be good for something! (apart from keeping car wash places in business).

    1. I don’t know about the taste of gulls (or shitehawks, as we called them), but their eggs are very fishy, not at all to my taste.

    2. Nasty. Gulls taste nasty. I haven’t eaten one, but I do read a lot of history and GIs, at times, ate Gulls in WWII when supplies got tight.

      They’re supposed to taste like dirty feet. The eggs are supposed to taste very fishy.

      They’re also hard to clean, and have little meat making it a lot of work to feed yourself.

      1. They’re supposed to taste like dirty feet.

        I always greet comments like that with “How do they know what [dirty feet] [taste] like?” (with appropriate [substitutions].

        The eggs are supposed to taste very fishy.

        As Mr Haggis says. Sounds credible. Next time I’m in Torridon, I’ll try to find a surviving St.Kilda evacuee and ask her (more likely than a “him”). Or I’ll just go out onto the cliffs when the breeding season starts.
        [Shudder] Bloody fulmar puke. Once received, never forgotten.

        1. Decades ago, I did research with Herring Gulls in Canada. During an approximately 10 day period the eggs were available and didn’t have bothersome embryos in them. I have eaten omelets of H.G. eggs.

          They are fishy. Unpleasantly so.

            1. Indeed it is. But the species is the HG in a famous colony (among ecologists) of tens of thousands of HGs. Ring species not relevant here.

  10. About a month ago I was on my front porch and I heard a noise like a jet engine shoot just pass my head. When I looked up I just caught the last moments of a wedge tailed eagle swooping down onto one of those big birds with the long bill that hang around the cows here.
    It took off again almost immediately and the bird was limp in its talons so it must have broken its next with the impact.
    As it was trying to gain height it kept getting hassled by crows and magpies.
    It wheeled around above for quite a while before winging off over the valley.
    I had read The Peregrine when Dr Coyne started talking about it a while ago and it reminded me of it.
    It was a fantastic sight to behold.
    I also get the black cockatoos here which are gorgeous but it is their call that is so beautiful.
    When I hear them just after waking in the morning it makes me glad to live in the country.

  11. If I remember correctly, the range of Cooper’s hawks is pretty much entire continental US (I presume a good portion of Canada and Mexico as well but my guide book was US-centric). And they have adapted quite happily to urban areas.

    Every year or two we get to watch a Cooper’s enjoying a meal in our backyard. They make it pretty clear that our company isn’t appreciated.

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