Master Naturalists: A bittersweet hawk tale

Feb. 3, 2011 at midnight
Updated Feb. 2, 2011 at 8:03 p.m.

By Paul and Mary Meredith

Tuesday dawned clear, windy and getting colder. At 8:30 a.m., Paul's friend, Pat called. While leaving the house, she saw a large bird hopping around in her front yard. It looked like it had a damaged wing.

Pat asked us to see if it should be rescued. We loaded up thick gloves, leather coat, two boxes and a tarp.


We spoke to Brent Ortego, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist who has a permit to handle wild birds, and asked for help. We got to Bonaire subdivision and looked around in the bushes.

We found the bird, but did not need the gloves and coat as protection from the birds talons - it had expired before we arrived.


The deceased was a juvenile Cooper's hawk, Accipiter cooperii. Accipiters are Goshawks, which are highly agile fliers, living in wooded areas and capturing prey flushed from cover or surprised while the hawks fly quickly through dense vegetation. They don't soar and dive - they ambush prey.

Although they are forest birds, Cooper's have adapted to urban areas, especially wooded areas like Bonaire.

Once shot as chicken hawks and decimated by DDT, they are now common partly because research has shown their consumption of chickens is minimal, also because the DDT ban has reduced egg mortality.


What happened to Pat's bird is, sadly, not uncommon. It showed evidence of a head injury, a classic impact symptom. In addition, the right talons had blood and feathers on them, suggesting a recent kill.

A Cooper's hawk's hunting pattern puts it at great risk in urban settings. While pursuing mid-sized birds like rock doves (common pigeons), white-wing dove, starlings, jays, American robins, woodpeckers and European starlings - and sometimes squirrels and mice - they crash into man-made objects.

According to "Birds of America," researchers in 1999 found that impact with walls and fences accounts for 70 percent of Cooper's deaths in urban habitats.

Other research on Cooper's skeletons found that 23 percent of the birds showed healed-over fractures of chest bones, especially the furcula (the wishbone). There's lots of food here, but it is risky territory.


We took the carcass to the Texas Parks and Wildlife office and delivered it to Brent. He examined it to confirm the probable cause of death. He suggested that it be frozen and sent to the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection at Texas A&M. There, a doctor in the Ornithology Division preserves birds for research, including DNA analysis. The center has more than 15,000 specimens from 49 countries, and more than 1,000 species of birds.

We helped Brent wrap the bird in an airtight bag to reduce freezer burn until the doctor can transport the hawk to College Station for preservation.

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at



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