Our Neighbors, the Coopers
By Joseph Kayne
When wild Cooper’s hawks decided to move in last summer, our back yard became a nursery, a living biology textbook, and a constant source of amazement.
Photo: Dave Jagodzinski
Our family shares its Deerfield, Illinois, yard with many living things. Most are friendly, except for the occasional raccoon that knocks over our metal garbage can at 3 a.m. We host squirrels, deer, chipmunks, bats, butterflies, insects, and a multitude of birds. Last year, we welcomed some new guests: a pair of Cooper’s hawks.
I noticed our visitors one late spring morning while toweling off after an early shower. In the midst of my robotic morning routine, I glanced to the back yard from my bedroom window. Something large and quick flashed past the corner of my eye, and I strained for a better look. I watched a large bird deposit a willow branch high up in a fork of one of our ash trees. Now, I’m no Roger Tory Peterson or John James Audubon, but I was able to identify it as a hawk of some sort. It had a longer tail than a red-tailed, which I often see perched year-round on local highway posts and fences. This, I determined, was a Cooper’s hawk. Missing my train, I logged on to the Internet to do some more research; the practice of law could wait.
The crow-sized Cooper’s hawk mostly eats birds, small mammals, and reptiles. It inhabits mixed forests and open woodlands, usually breeding in the summer throughout most of the United States and wintering in Central America. The hawk’s razor-sharp talons and hooked beak enable it to kill and rip the flesh of its prey; its long tail acts as a rudder to allow for skillful maneuvering through trees. Recently removed from the Illinois State Endangered Species List, the Cooper’s hawk has recovered strongly since the banning of DDT in the 1970s, and has found suburban yards a good place to hunt and nest.
When I spied the hawk through my binoculars, the first thing I noticed was the red of its eyes gleaming at me intensely from above like rare rubies. Then, to my surprise, another smaller Cooper’s hawk joined the first in the tree. They were going to nest in my yard! On the train ride to work, I began to wonder how these marvelous descendants of the great dinosaurs could nest among the trampoline, batting cage, and roughhousing of my eight- and ten-year-old boys, not to mention the grating of local lawn mowers.
Photo: Joseph Kayne
For the next several weeks, my family and I had the honor of watching the lovebirds build their nest. The male, the smaller of the two, constructed a platform of sticks, twigs, and bark (with some help from the female) about 50 feet above the ground. I moved the trampoline and cage farther away from the tree and warned my boys not to yell or throw anything to disrupt the birds. The hawks were most active at dawn and dusk, when they mesmerized me with their dance from tree to tree. It starts with a liftoff. Then, with three powerful thrusts of their broad wings, the movement gracefully transitions into a smooth glide through the wooded yards, ending in a nonchalant but precise upward landing in a tall tree. A true ballet!
Despite the kids’ continued games, the hawks remained. They became part of my daily and nightly routines. I toweled off each morning to the songs, flight, and nest-building of the hawks. Their conversations became familiar to us. We always knew when they were near, even if we couldn’t see them.
Each day the nest grew precariously larger, and we wondered if it would fall of its own weight. The female often left the nest for long periods, but one day, after several weeks, she became more sedentary on her throne. The trees leafed out and the nest receded from view, nicely camouflaged. The male often perched on different trees and wires around the yard. Then one day, after the nest’s completion, the female vanished. Though we still heard the calls of our visitors, I saw no signs of life at the nest except a pile of pellets, feathers, and excrement beneath the tree. Later that day, though, the female returned. She continued to come and go for several days, but I failed to see any other life in the nest and feared that no young had been born.
A few days later, I saw small movements in the nest, and then, lo and behold, I saw the backside of a small, fuzzy, awkward-looking bird through my binoculars. A few black specks dotted its pure white, down body — the cleanest and softest material I’ve ever seen. I slowly walked to the other side of the tree for a better look. The bird’s face startled me — its head was grossly disproportionate to the rest of its body, and it sported a giant beak. Excited, I got my family, crowing the proud announcement as though my wife had just given birth. Later in the week, I discovered two more nestlings — triplets!
I observed the birds feeding over the next four weeks. At dusk, I listened to baseball, sipped a beer, and watched them grow. They grew large quickly, transforming into gawky teenagers. But as our annual Fourth-of-July bash for 100 guests approached, I began to wonder about the young hawks’ fate. We were planning our cookout, music, games, and fireworks for July 5th.
Photo: Joseph Kayne
Late afternoon on July 4th, my wife, Tina, screamed. One of the hawks had fallen out of the tree. But as I slowly neared the bird, it flew to a large oak in the neighboring yard. It had fledged! By the next morning, all of the fledglings had abandoned their nest and disappeared. How apt it was that the hawks gained their first taste of freedom on Independence Day.
Over the next several weeks, the young lingered, perching on the trampoline and telephone wires and entertaining us with their constant chatter. I named them Moe, Larry, and Curly. One morning, one of them treated me to a gory show as it tightly grasped a robin by its sharp talons and ripped with its beak. Nearby, the others stalked back and forth, like a cross between a strutting rooster, a pouting teenager, and a romping dinosaur.
I soon began introducing our friends and neighbors to the birds, whose questions suggested that they were somewhat less accustomed to the idea of living around wildlife than we had become: “Do they eat poodles?” (Not likely, since Cooper’s hawks go after much smaller prey.) “Where do they sleep?” (Perched on branches.) “Aren’t you scared?” (We were thrilled!) My neighbor told me he took down his bird feeder because no birds seemed to be visiting that year. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was sheltering the “murderers” in my back yard.
During the first week of August, my oldest son invited his friends over for a birthday slumber party. At breakfast, one of the young hawks perched on a lawn chair three feet from the kitchen table, drawing the boys to our French doors to observe this marvelous creature. My son exclaimed, “Look at those talons!” Another said, “Look at those large eyes and sharp beak!” I was glad they had the opportunity to witness a wild hawk up close. Then, as if to make some cogent comment, the hawk lifted its long tail, whitewashed the deck with excrement, and flew off to a nearby shagbark hickory.
At the end of August, when the goldenrod had begun to bloom, we left for Boston to watch the Red Sox in Fenway and to relax on Martha’s Vineyard. After ten days, we returned to an eerie silence. Something was missing — the place seemed lifeless. The Cooper’s hawks were gone. We felt empty and sad, like the parents of a new first-year college student, and were left again with our normal visitors. We can only hope that one of the hawks returns next spring to raise a new family.
Our hawks did return this year, and raised four young. They rebuilt a nest in the same spot as last year, so we’re fairly sure these are the same parent hawks. The entire bird family survived a violent storm in June, as well as our annual July 4th party.