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Speaking of Nature: Hawks astonish, delight

  • This is the Cooper’s hawk that Bill Danielson’s wife, Susan, saw on their porch. There are subtle variations in color between the sharp-shinned hawk and this one, but this immature bird is notably “chunkier.” For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • The sharp-shinned hawk is smaller than a Cooper’s hawk. Note the thin body of this immature bird. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson


Sunday, December 03, 2017

It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I had not participated in “Black Friday” because I was suffering from a turkey-induced hangover. The carb-laden Thanksgiving feast combined with the wine (Darwin’s beard, the wine) was heaven on the day of the event, but proved problematic during the post Thanksgiving reckoning. So, in its own way, Friday truly was something of a black day.

Saturday was better. I had recovered from some of the damage of Thursday’s revelry, and though the inevitable return to the scene of the crime that occurs when one opens the refrigerator and startsforaging for leftovers (can there be anything better than Thanksgiving leftovers?) did result in a slight setback, the “healing” process had begun. If Friday was a black day, then Saturday was gray.

As it happened, the weather matched my physical state perfectly. It was a cool, cloudy day. There wasn’t any room for the sun to peek through the ceiling of clouds, but it was still fairly bright. The household took a late breakfast together, and I took up my traditional spot at the table. This put my back to the kitchen window, but this allowed me to focus on the beaming, happy face of my beautiful wife.

We were all enjoying pancakes and chatting about pleasant things. It was perfect. Then, all of a sudden, I saw Susan’s face light up. Her eyes were clearly looking over my left shoulder, and her expression was one of astonishment and delight.

“Look at that bird!” she said. “Bill, there’s a giant bird right behind you!”

Now something you should know about Susan is that she has a charming proclivity for odd observations. I remember one day she came home from work and said that there was either a beaver or a bear living under our porch. Days later, I would see the “bear” myself and it turned out to be a woodchuck.

I had an idea of what the bird might be, so I decided not to move. Understanding Susan’s penchant for exaggeration, I asked a few key questions, and then set about decoding the answers. Understanding your spouse is important, and we have made a joke out of this entire process. I refer to this decoding as relying on the “Arbetter 2000” software. She constantly tells me that it’s time for mew to get an upgrade.

Anyway, a moment later, I saw a flicker of disappointment on her face. The bird had flown away, but I had all of the information that I needed. A bird of the size and coloration that she described could only be an immature red-tailed hawk — or an immature Cooper’s hawk. Both had been in the yard, but which had it been? My money was on the Cooper’s hawk.

Birds of prey (otherwise known as raptors) come in a variety of different designs. The eagles are the largest, and they tend to specialize on larger prey animals. Falcons are smaller and ridiculously fast.

Then, there are the hawks, but even among this group there are different species that specialize on different types of prey and different hunting methods. The buteos (pronounced beauty-ohs) are a group of hawks with broad wings that soar on updrafts while looking for prey, which are often small mammals.

The red-tailed hawk is probably the most recognizable member of this group.

Then, there is another group of hawks that is not quite as well-known. This group is called the accipiters (pronounced ack-sip- it-ers), and its members are quite different from the buteos.

What is really interesting is that the Latin words “buteo” and “accipiter” both mean “hawk.” But in the translation, there is a subtle nuance that sets them apart. “Buteo” also means “buzzard,” and in Europe, a buzzard is what we might think of as a larger, soaring hawk, like a red-tailed hawk.

Both types of hawks will sit and survey the landscape for potential prey, but the type of prey dictates rather different techniques for catching them. Accipiters are ambush hunters that specialize in eating other birds, which requires them to be extremely fast and maneuverable. As a result, they have shorter wings and longer tails and they must be able to follow smaller birds as they try to escape.

In our area, there are two species of accipiters that you are likely to see: the sharp-shinned hawk and the Cooper’s hawk. They are virtually identical in appearance, and can give even experienced birders a challenge from time to time. A large female sharp-shinned hawk may be the same size as a small male Cooper’s hawk, and if the birds are moving, it may be difficult to tell the species apart.

It was later on that gray Saturday morning that I saw a hawk sitting in the shrubby margins of my field and determined that it was a Cooper’s hawk. Susan looked at it and confirmed that she had indeed seen that bird on the porch railing.

Mystery solved!

Now, I can focus on preparing myself for Christmas dinner at my parents’ house. Poor me!

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for

the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently

teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go

to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.