Young Female Cooper’s Hawk — “What Did We Just Do?”

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A few mornings ago I took an early walk at Sweetwater Wetlands.  Part of the Wetlands is rimmed by large trees, mostly Cottonwoods and willows.  The trees are favorite perches and foraging areas for a variety of birds.  As I was walking under the trees’ canopy I suddenly heard a loud squawking sound and saw some branches rustling.  I recognized he noise, a rapidly repeated series of one-note cries, as a Cooper’s Hawk’s call.  I had no idea why the branches were shaking, so I stepped back to get a better look.

I saw two Cooper’s Hawks having sex.  They were an odd couple at first blush.  The female was very young, judging from her plumage.  She still sported the feathers of a juvenile bird, although her eyes showed signs of turning orange (juvenile Cooper’s Hawks have pale yellow eyes).  The male was tiny in comparison to the female, not much more than half her size.  That isn’t unusual — as a general rule, male Cooper’s Hawks are much smaller than females.  The male sported the plumage and red eyes of an adult bird.  He was at least a year or two older than the female.

The birds finished before I could take a photo.  The male flew to a branch about 10 feet above the female’s perch and the pair sat silently for a second.  And, then, the female looked up at the male, twisting her head almost 180 degrees from its normal plane in order to see her lover.

It’s impossible to gauge a bird’s mood from its facial expressions because birds don’t have facial muscles.  They cannot smile, frown, or grimace.  But, to me, this hawk’s body language suggested her state of mind.  She seemed to be genuinely puzzled about what had just occurred and she also plainly continued to have deep interest in her paramour.

Male and female Cooper’s Hawks mate for life.  The pairs are inseparable during the breeding season.  They cooperate in nest building.  The male brings food to the female while she incubates her eggs and continues to hunt for the family for the first 30 days or so after the eggs hatch.  Once the youngsters fledge the parents both hunt on behalf of the fledglings for another three weeks or so.  During the non-breeding season, the adults may separate somewhat but they never really go their separate ways.  The female depicted here is not only that male’s lover, but she is his “wife.”

It is not unheard of for female Cooper’s Hawks to breed as yearlings.  This female may be a child bride but she isn’t exceptional in that respect.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f8 @ 1/500.

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