Levin: Cooper's Hawks

Jul 24, 2015

My mother was one of eleven siblings, born to parents from Eastern Europe, neither of whom spoke much English when they arrived at Ellis Island.

My grandfather taught Hebrew, didn’t handle money when the Torah was read, which was about twice a week, and got around in a horse drawn cart. My grandmother had a dairy cow, chickens, and a large family garden. Somehow they got by.

I thought of my grandparents recently, as I watched a pair of Cooper’s hawks feed five robust and demanding chicks.

An adult Cooper’s hawk has a gunmetal gray back, darker cap, rusty barring on the chest and belly, and intense red-orange eyes. Its wings are short and round, its legs and tail long. Females are larger than males. Their typical flight is an alternating series of strokes followed by short glides, as in flap, flap, sail.

For small to mid-sized birds, a Cooper’s hawk is a terrorist. Spirited and relentless, it chases quarry through air, around limbs, even on foot into dense shrubs. They used be called “chicken hawks” for good reason.

My friend Tig, who maintains a Thetford sugar bush, found a Cooper’s Hawk nest in his backyard this spring on a platform of sticks sixty feet up in a white pine. After the chicks hatched, he rigged a remote digital camera in a nearby tree and every four seconds during daylight hours the camera snapped a frame.

Then every evening, once his own children were in bed, Tig downloaded the chip into his laptop and scrolled through the day’s ten or so thousand images, deleting everything that had to do with sleeping, crouching, and nest-rim idling, which was most of them. Feeding pictures, however, told a story.

Except for the occasional ruffed grouse or unidentified, mid-sized bird, almost every feeding image featured a chipmunk. Dietary studies show a Cooper’s hawk chick requires, on average, sixty-six prey items in six weeks. Do the math. Five chicks would consume more than three hundred items... and, of course, parent birds have to eat too.

So this summer, at least, they ate a lot of chipmunks - because last fall, Vermont had a bumper crop of red oak acorns, which triggered a trophic cascade, a bumper crop of acorn eaters like white-footed mice, blue jays, and chipmunks. They’re everywhere and noisy. At any given time, three or four loiter under my birdfeeders. Tig’s hawks simply cashed in.

My grandparents never had it so easy.