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A hawk by any other name

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The line between abundance and burden is often short and not well marked. Author Edna Ferber said, Perhaps too much of everything is as bad as too little. Wildlife and its interaction among humans is a consistent study in varying perceptions of this. Case in point: Coopers hawk (Accipiter cooperii).

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It wasnt very long ago, say 15 years, when Coopers hawks were difficult to find locally and would cause quite a stir among birders if one was seen. That has all changed. It is increasingly rare to walk through one of the parks in the metro area and not see one. Why this increase has occurred is not known. But they are here and in generous numbers, often hunting at bird feeders.

Coopers hawks are the most widespread of a group known as Accipiters. Accipiters are a sort of hybrid between the large soaring hawks and the dashing, sharp-winged falcons. As a result they do a little of both. That is, they can soar and they can sprint with equal skill.

This is a medium-sized raptor about 15-20 inches long with a wingspan of two to three feet. The size variance is due to a curious element common among raptorsthe female is considerably larger than the male. Why this is the case is a much debated topic among experts. No consensus has yet been reached so it remains a mystery.

They have steely gray backs, with a darker crown; white breasts barred with rusty cinnamon; long tails ending in a band of white, and relatively short, rounded wings.

Coopers hawks nest in virtually all of the lower 48 states and southern Canada preferring taller trees with thick canopy. More and more the birds are setting up shop in urban settings such as cemeteries, campuses, golf courses, etc. Armour and Elmwood Parks in West Fargo have both hosted nests in the past. By April one should be able to find the birds setting up territories and carrying sticks in nest building efforts. Many of these city hawks are quite tame and can be approached very closely. Listen for their kek-kek-kek-kek-kek call any time during the nesting season.

Small to medium sized birds make up the bulk of this birds diet although it will take small mammals such as tree squirrels and chipmunks as well. It takes its prey with two slightly different hunting tactics. One is perch hunting, where the bird sits quietly on a hidden branch and dashes off in pursuit of birds that happen by. The other is aerial hunting where the hawk cruises through the woods in hopes of scaring something into flight.

It is startling to witness the speed with which a Coopers hawk can navigate the thickest of woods. Not without peril however. A recent study of these birds showed that 23 percent had healed fractures of chest bones indicating that not every attack is a complete success.

The young, by now, have fledged and fall migration is near at hand. Much is yet to be understood about this bird and its movements. Some populations are sedentary; others migrate short to medium distances. By late October in our area, Coopers hawks will have all but gone. Wintering birds are found commonly from about Iowa south to Central America.

So do we have enough Coopers hawks? Some would say so. I heard from a south Fargo resident this spring who was excited to have a pair nesting in her yard. A mere three months later and the list of complaints was long: It was defecating on her car, it was making a mess of her driveway, it was killing all the songbirds in her neighborhood. She even wondered if it was legal to kill them (its not). Its a case of realizing how the Walt Disney version of wildlife doesnt often match reality.

As long as there have been human and wildlife interactions, there have been conflicts. Some, like grizzly bears and gray wolves, involve much emotion, headlines, and attention. Most, like Coopers hawks, fall under the radar. But if it happens in our backyard, it can be as emotional and real as any other conflict. At such times it may be best to take a step back and try to appreciate what we have. It may not always be Bambi sweet, but it will always be interesting.

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