Column: Cooper’s Hawk meets his match

Published 3:43 pm Thursday, November 27, 2008

By Staff
The last few days it seems the birds at the feeders have been pretty spooky, time and again the whole lot of them dashing off in panic for no apparent reason.
There are also periods when there is not a bird in sight anywhere. Those are pretty sure signs that a hawk has moved into the neighborhood, quite likely a Cooper's hawk. The other day I was out filling the bird feeders and, sure enough, little gray feathers were scattered about on the snow. They appeared to be from a junco or titmouse, either one a good bird for sacrifice if sacrifice must be made for there are plenty around here. I didn't happen to witness this event but over years of bird feeding I've seen, as many of you have, a number of Cooper's hawks in action.
Once a Cooper's gets radar lock on a target it's all over and right now. There's a good size sycamore tree a short ways from my feeders and that's usually the escape option a targeted bird takes. Have you ever noticed a sycamore's branches? They're all kinky and gnarly and intertwined which you'd think would make it nearly impossible for a large bird to navigate through, especially with any amount of speed. Not so for the Cooper's. In the rare event a fleeing bird makes it the 30 feet from feeder to sycamore the Cooper's twists and winds his way through the branches faster than the eye can follow, matching every desperate zig and zag of his tiny prey. Invariably, within just a second or two the Cooper's emerges from the maze with prize in hand.
When we lived in town there was a really dense spruce tree on the edge of the street not far from our feeders. Here in this presumed safe haven birds of all kinds would gather by the dozens to shout epithets and make obscene gestures at some frustrated Cooper's hawk. However, every once in a while a Cooper's would get enough of their arrogance and crash dive into the tree in a showy bluster. Juncos, house finches, sparrows and goldfinches would spew out of the spruce in all directions like an erupting fountain. The Cooper's would scramble his way out of the branches, single out a victim and catch it before it got to the other side of the street. From start to finish took less than three seconds.
Until recently I would have said there's no bird, other than perhaps the swallows, that stood a chance against a Cooper's hawk but I have found a most unlikely contender. Would you believe the kingfisher? They are regulars around our place and twice now I have seen a kingfisher dodge the Cooper's hawk bullet. The first time was a chance encounter. The kingfisher was cruising along the creek coming upstream while a Cooper's was coming down from the opposite direction on a head-on course. The Cooper's kicked in the afterburners and closed on the incoming kingfisher in a flash. Just as the strike seemed immanent the kingfisher dove straight into the creek. The confused Cooper's muttered, "Well I'll be, never saw that move before," and continued on. Moments later the kingfisher emerged and nonchalantly made his way on up the creek.
Now, I'll admit that wasn't so much a test of flying skill, but rather a brilliant maneuver. However, just the other day I saw a kingfisher one-up a Cooper's hawk fair and square. They came into view quite a ways upstream with the Copper's hard on the tail of the kingfisher. As they hurtled downstream toward me at mach speed the Cooper's was gaining a little, but darn little. The gap lessened and just as the end seemed inevitable the kingfisher did a downward somersault, actually stopping instantly in mid-air and reversing his direction back upstream. The Cooper's shot right on by. By the time he hit the brakes and got turned around the kingfisher was just a fading vapor trail. The Cooper's bid him farewell and went on his way. That, I'll tell you, was something to see. Carpe diem.