Where bird events are concerned, I'll remember fall 2012 for the invasion of red-breasted nuthatches and February 2013 as the month that the snowy owl achieved celebrity status atop the condos on the south end of Tybee Island.
Summer 2013 is memorable for the mixed blessing of a pair of Cooper's hawks nesting in the woods across the street from my house.
Now it is not unusual for my yard full of bird feeders to attract the attention of a hungry hawk. Ask a Cooper's hawk or its smaller cousin, the sharp-shinned hawk what it would like for dinner and at the top of the list will be "birds." Doves and pigeons are especially popular, as are robins, blue jays, woodpeckers, finches, and even bluebirds.
As "accipiters," the Coop and the Sharpie have short, rounded wings and long tails, perfect for the agile flight necessary to hunt in forests or urban and suburban yards. When I come home to find a pile of dove feathers in the yard, I suspect that the Cooper's hawk did a fly-thru for some fast food.
What alerted me to the unusual happenings of this summer was the noise. In early June, I heard a loud cackling, almost but not quite like the raucous call of a pileated woodpecker. I dropped what I was doing to trace the source of the racket. As I approached, a slender hawk took off and flew into the trees of an empty wooded lot, calling loudly.
"Odd," I thought. "They don't usually make that much noise. Maybe there's a nest."
I made a cursory inspection of the tall pine trees but didn't see a bulky mound of sticks. I regret that I didn't make a thorough tree-by-tree search. I might have been able to watch the female sit on the nest for 35 days while the smaller male brought her food. I might have seen her feeding tasty tidbits to her downy white nestlings for another four to five weeks. I missed all of that excitement.
Only in late July did my ears once again lead me to the last part of the story. While I was working in the yard, I heard a persistent shrill cry. I followed the noise and found a young bird perched on a pine branch making a racket. While adult Cooper's hawks have black caps, red eyes, blue-gray backs and rusty barred chests, this juvenile had a brown back, white chest with brown streaking, and yellow eyes. It also had lots of fluffy white feathers under its tail that made it look like it was wearing bloomers.
Over the course of the next week, I found two more young birds for a total of three juvenile Cooper's hawks. These birds could fly but were staying close to home and begging incessantly, hoping that Mom and Dad would bring dinner. They remain dependent on their parents for 30 to 40 days after fledging. The learning curve for a young hawk is a bit steeper than for a young cardinal, as catching doves takes more practice than opening sunflower seeds.
Since we are talking hawks, I want to mention two others that are common in our area. The red-tailed hawk and the red-shouldered hawk are both "buteos." They have broad wings, short, wide tails, and are built for soaring, rather than agile forest flying.
The red-shouldered hawk dines primarily on small mammals, frogs, reptiles and occasionally a bird. Adults have a rusty red chest and distinct red-orange shoulder patches. Juveniles are brown and streaky, much like juvenile Cooper's hawks.
The red-tailed hawk is our area's largest "buteo," with a dark brown back, white chest, and distinctive brown bellyband across its chest. Adults have a red tail while young birds have broad brown and white bands on their tales. Red-tailed hawks eat squirrels, rats, rabbits, voles, pigeons, doves, snakes, toads and more.
It's quieter in my neighborhood now. Mr. & Mrs. Cooper must be teaching Juniors 1, 2 and 3 to keep their beaks shut until its time to eat. Good birding!
Bird enthusiast Diana Churchill can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.