Birds of Prey and Lunch

Respecting the hunting skills of Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks

By Rob Breeding

I was walking across campus the other day and walked up on a hawk clutching a recently dispatched pigeon.

The surprised raptor struggled into the air with its bounty, flying 10 feet or so to the other side of a spruce. I walked around, too, quietly trying to get another peek. The hawk flushed up into the tree, leaving its catch to cool in the snow.

I felt bad for bothering it and headed for my nearby office. A half hour later, I checked and the pigeon on ice was gone.

I don’t know my small raptors well, but I noted the hawk’s long, banded tail and guessed sharp-shinned. I then consulted with a couple of folks more knowledgeable than I on matters of birds. The verdict was that it was more likely a Cooper’s hawk.

These two raptors, with similar patterns and hunting styles, are often mistaken. But the boldness of nailing a bird the size of a pigeon in the middle of the day on a busy college campus indicated Cooper’s.

Once while driving through a suburban neighborhood in Pocatello, Idaho, I watched through the windshield as a small LGB (little gray bird) fluttered across the street in front of my car. Suddenly a hawk swooped down behind the LGB, reached out with its thin, boney claws, and plucked lunch out of the air.

Based on the lasting impression of those skinny legs, I’m pretty sure it was a sharp-shinned. But again, I’m no birder, and these are species that sometimes confuse experts.

A pigeon — weighing up to a half pound — provides a healthy meal for whatever raptor has the chops to take it down. A male Cooper’s hawk isn’t much bigger than a pigeon, but the bird I saw was most likely a larger female. Female Cooper’s hawks can weigh up to a pound and a half.

Pigeons are an introduced species. At some point, I learned to call them rock doves, or rock pigeons, and either moniker references a European species that is pretty much the prototype pigeon: gray body with a pair of dark bands on its wings and iridescent green feathers at the collar. The vast variation in domestic pigeons is the result of breeders manipulating the gene that controls color.

The Eurasian collared-dove is another import from this family of birds and has also spread across the United States. There are plenty of both imports flittering about cities and towns, but they don’t begin to replace the biomass of the passenger pigeon, possibly the most numerous bird in North America before market hunting and habitat destruction drove it to extinction.

The historical record is filled with accounts of the nomadic passenger pigeon’s abundance, with flocks so thick they blocked the sun for an hour or more as the birds passed overhead. There’s likely some exaggeration in this legend, but passenger pigeons were considered easy to hunt. This might come as a surprise for anyone who has hunted morning doves and emptied boxes of shells in order to kill a handful of these elusive, speedy birds.

Passenger pigeons weren’t driven to extinction by sport hunters, as a recent story in the Washington Post suggested. The birds were instead wiped out by market hunters who killed the birds by the barrelful — sometimes burning nesting sites to gather chicks — to ship east to the cities and be served in fine restaurants. Squab was once a popular menu item.

The flocks seemed limitless, yet they disappeared over the course of a few decades.

Cooper’s hawks are fine hunters. Sharp-shinned hawks are even more skilled, at least based on my experience. But neither bird has the capacity to inflict carnage on a landscape level. That’s too bad. I’d love to see them put a dent in the scourge of squawking ring-necked doves spreading across the land.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.