Into the Wild: Meet the Cooper’s hawk, Portland’s deadliest bird

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Have you ever seen a flock of pigeons flying over Portland and thought about eating one? Just grabbing and chowing down on one of those little bread-crumb-fattened birds on your way to the office?

It’s not such a crazy idea – after all people pay through the nose for a squab dinner at a fancy restaurant – but I’d guess that wild-caught pigeon is not on the menu for most of us.

It’s a different story for Cooper’s hawks, the most fearsome aerial predator in the city of Portland. These birds love the taste of pigeon and can be seen devouring them on downtown ledges and rooftops with the same gusto most of us reserve for Eventide oysters.

Standing more than a foot tall, Cooper’s hawks are the avian kings of the Old Port. Adult birds have a blue-gray back and barred orange chests, large yellow talons, bright red eyes, and a permanent case of resting-murderer face.

The bodies of all raptors are optimized to help them capture their preferred prey. Rodent-eating hawks called Buteos, including the red-tailed hawks seen so often perched in trees along Interstate 295, have broad wings for soaring over grassy areas and strong claws for killing stronger prey. Falcons fly incredibly fast, helping them hunt birds over open ground. Owls have developed advanced eyesight and hearing, which allow them to detect prey in the dark. And so on.

Cooper’s hawks originated as forest hunters, and have bodies specially designed to hunt nimble birds through dense areas. Cities, with their tangle of structures and a steady supply of prey, are fertile new hunting areas.

Despite their lowly reputation, pigeons are strong and aerobatic fliers, and their predators must be able to take them by surprise and then pursue with great agility. Cooper’s hawks are up for it, with broad wings that can be quickly tucked in to slide through tight spots and long tails that act as rudders to aid in maneuverability.

A Cooper’s hawk. (Alan Schmierer photo)

Cooper’s hawks begin their hunts by scanning for prey. This could mean sitting in a tree spying birds at your backyard feeder, or, in Portland, sighting a flock of pigeons from a building ledge. (By the way, bird feeders are essentially Accipiter buffets, and Cooper’s and their close relative the sharp-shinned hawk are by far the most common hawk species seen in backyards.) When it sees something it likes, the Cooper’s will fly low and fast, using the building to shield its approach. As it closes in it swings its two feet forward, talons extended. A pigeon doesn’t stand a chance.

A Cooper’s hawk is successful in about 20 percent of its hunts. Then comes the fun part. If you’re a regular Portlander, just walking down the street, you might happen upon a ferocious avian predator just tearing into a freshly killed pigeon. It could be happening on a window ledge (a friend sent me a video last week of a Cooper’s feeding on a building on State Street) or in the bushes of any city park. They just stand right there in a widening pile of bloody feathers, munching away.

You’ll never look at city pigeons the same way again.

Nick Lund of Cumberland, outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon, has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, the Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com, and on Twitter @TheBirdist.