JOHN BLAKEMAN ON THE Central Park COOPER'S HAWK
Here’s Donna Browne’s interesting note that you forwarded to me:
"One day by the feeding area I was looking at a hawk, Cooper's or Sharpie, the light was bad, sitting in the crotch of a tree. Suddenly an immature Red-tail flew over and body slammed her out of the tree and took her perch. Instead of zipping off, the smaller hawk immediately proceeded to sit in a tree not more than three feet away on the same level. Both birds then attentively gazed down the wooded slope as if looking for prey. People have told me and there are also entries in the Central Park Log, about a young Red-tail and Sharpie that "hang out" together. This can't be usual can it?
No, this is not anything usual – but not much with Central Park hawks now is.
A “body slam” is a perfect way of describing the attack of the red-tail on the sitting Cooper’s hawk.(Or, was it a sharpie? I'm betting that it was a Coop.) That’s exactly how they attack. They fly right up to the target and just at the last moment thrust their legs forward into the target. It might appear that red-tails have rather short legs that merely extend from their lower abdomen. Not so. What appears to be the lower leg bone, the scaled yellow skin portion above the foot, is actually part of the ankle, not the leg. The leg bones that correspond to those of our legs are above this, in the feathered portion of the leg. The origin, or point of attachment of the leg is actually far up the body, under the wing, closer to the chest than it appears when the bird is sitting.
This means that when the hawk extends its legs for an attack, they extend markedly out in front of the head. I've been “punched” with these attacks when encountering untrained birds that were later used in falconry, and in some wild birds that have reacted this way when trapped. The attack is quick as a cat, and quite powerful. It surely would knock a Cooper’s hawk off its perch. The feathers of the Cooper’s probably kept the red-tail’s talons from any puncture wound, but the smaller accipiter learned its lesson. The next time, it will less reluctantly give up its perch to the approaching red-tail. (Well, knowing the often obstinate Cooper’s hawk as I do, it might not. These birds are remarkably stubborn, even arrogant. So who knows what will happen the next time.)
The flying of the displaced Cooper’s (or sharpie) to a nearby branch is not remarkable. The Cooper’s knows she can easily evade any future attack of the red-tail, should she choose to do so. In close quarters she’s twice as fast as the big red-tail and instantly can be on the wing. By sitting on a nearby branch after being punched, she might merely have been taunting the big red-tail. “Try that again, and you'll be thrashing at air. I'm so much quicker than you big lunk.”
No, I don't like to anthropomorphize (attach human traits to) these birds. But they are living animals with personalities and behavioral traits that some times mirror those of humans.
Once again, in the wild, in rural hawk habitats, these two species are not likely to share the same tree for more than an instant. In CP, both species are drawn to the area, probably for food, even thought it would certainly be different species for each hawk. The Cooper’s hawk feeds almost exclusively on birds. It could take ground-feeding pigeons in an explosive ground-level ambush from behind a bush or bench.
To further complicate matters, are there any records of Central Park Cooper’s hawk nests? The species has invaded virtually all urban environments across the continent, from the smallest villages to the largest cities. The feeder-caused concentration of prey birds has been too enticing for this formerly shy and wary species to exist. Thirty years ago the Cooper’s hawk was suffering from pesticide poisoning, in the manner of peregrine falcons. But with the removal of DDT usage in the early 70s, the Cooper’s hawk has made a remarkable recovery.
And much of that recovery has happened as the bird has learned to breed and hunt in urban areas. It has given up its native wariness and entered villages and cities everywhere. Does it, therefore, nest in Central Park? I wouldn't be surprised.
John A. Blakeman
PS from Marie: No no Cooper's Hawk nests so far. I'm pretty sure of that. But who knows what the future holds. Will we have Wall-to-Wall hawks in Central Park? Stay tuned.