Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Goshawks are the three accipiters (a category of hawks possessing long tails and relatively short, rounded wings) found in New England. The one you’re most likely to see is the Cooper’s Hawk. Built for speed and maneuverability, these raptors are able to fly incredibly fast through the woods as they search for prey in amongst trees. Their diet consists largely of birds, but they also have been known to consume mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish.
You may have seen a Cooper’s Hawk perched near your feeder, or perhaps have been witness to an explosion of feathers after a songbird was captured by one, but for the most part, medium-size birds such as Mourning Doves, European Starlings, Northern Flickers, Ruffed Grouse and American Crows are preferred.
On a winter day several years ago, the pictured Cooper’s Hawk captured, killed and ate a Pileated Woodpecker, an unusually large prey that is about the same size as the hawk that caught it. Chances are great that this is a female Cooper’s Hawk, as female raptors are generally larger than males, and therefore capable of capturing larger prey.
Short, powerful, rounded wings and a relatively long tail enable Sharp-shinned Hawks to maneuver in dense cover in pursuit of small birds, which compose 90% of their diet. Small mammals and insects are consumed, but not nearly as frequently as birds. The size of the birds eaten range from hummingbirds to Ruffed Grouse. Long legs and toes (especially middle toes) enable individuals to reach into vegetation and large eyes enhance its ability to catch fast-moving prey.
Sharp-shinned Hawks are familiar sights to those of us with bird feeders – this species is responsible for 35% of 1,138 predation incidents reported at feeders in continent-wide survey. In this photograph, a Blue Jay is successfully warding off an attack by a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk. (Photo by Jeannie Killam.)