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Washburn Outdoors: Migrating Cooper’s hawks invade Iowa

Returning from a nearby corn stubble, a seemingly endless supply of ducks descended to the open creek. The stage was set. The signal was clear.

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Washburn Outdoors

An adult male Cooper’s hawk devours one of the author’s pet homing pigeons. Famous for conducting surprise raids on backyard feeders, Cooper’s hawks flare the tempers and raise the blood pressure of bird-feeding grandmas everywhere.

It would be hard to think of a bird that exhibits more cunning, speed, and raw savagery than the crow-sized Cooper's hawk. Equally at home in wilderness forest and suburban hedgerow, the highly maneuverable Cooper’s is best known for its surprise attacks on backyard bird feeders – raids that most often result in an unfortunate dove, cardinal, or blue jay becoming a fast food menu item. It’s an ongoing drama that flares tempers and raises the blood pressure of bird-feeding grandmas everywhere.

I have a personal, love-hate relationship with the Cooper’s hawk. Which direction the pendulum will swing largely depends on our latest contact. Whenever a Cooper's comes blistering through the yard and deftly snags a fleeing sparrow or junco, I think, "Wow, that was awesome!" But when the same hawk comes in and kills one of my pet homing pigeons, I want to scream.

I fully realize, of course, that it is as perfectly natural for a Cooper's hawk to eat a pigeon as it is for it to chow down on some hapless starling. Chasing, catching, and consuming other birds is pretty much what Cooper's do. It's how they make their living, and there is no rational way to hate them for doing so.

Whenever a person puts out feeders filled with choice seeds, they are inviting wild birds to visit their backyard. The more feeders you hang, the more birds you attract. That's called success.

But when a passing Cooper's hawk notices all that backyard activity and eagerly joins the buffet, trouble erupts. It’s a natural progression. Sunflower and suet feeders attract hungry finches, sparrows, and woodpeckers. Finches, sparrows, and woodpeckers attract hungry hawks. That's also a sign of success. Like it or not, marauding hawks are simply taking bird feeding to its next highest level.

I love homing pigeons. Message carrying pigeons provided civilization with its earliest version of air mail, and we continue to marvel at the homer’s uncanny ability to find its way home over miles of unknown terrain.

I’ve been raising and flying pigeons since I was 9 years old. Surrounded by bird feeders, my backyard pigeon loft is currently situated at the edge of a mature woodlot. No wonder I have losses. If my loft doesn’t represent a begging-for-trouble, hawk feeder on steroids, then I don't know what does.

Washburn Outdoors

Inhabitants of dense woodlands, Cooper’s hawks are among the fastest of birds. It takes at least three years before the Cooper’s eye color begins turning from yellow to orange and finally, to bright crimson.

Thirty years ago, Cooper's hawks were listed as an endangered species in Iowa. Losing a pigeon to one was rare, almost something to brag about. But the scenario has changed. Cooper's populations are on the rise and visits to my loft have become dramatically more common. My annual loss of homers has become alarming, nearly 60 were killed during the worst year. Needless to say, the novelty has worn off.

Some losses are easily forgotten. Others are more painful. Like the three homers that were killed by Cooper’s hawks after returning from a long-distance course that originated in the western Black Hills, carried them over barren Dakota badlands, across wind-swept prairies and concluded with a final dash above sweltering Iowa corn fields.

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Even more painful was the loss of a beautiful blue-barred homer who had recently returned from a grueling, 1,000-mile race that began in Houston, Texas and terminated – in more ways than one – at my loft in Clear Lake. Not exactly the kind of homecoming we had anticipated.

I should probably mention that there is an easy solution to my dilemma. The losses can be stopped by simply locking my pigeons indoors. I must admit though, that it’s a hard thing to do. Just as thoroughbred race horses are born to run, purebred homing pigeons are made to fly. Locking them inside is the equivalent of putting Secretariat in a petting zoo.

Although an increasing number of Cooper’s hawks are choosing to nest in Iowa, the vast majority occur as migrants. The spring migration peaks during late March, and there are clear signals that time has arrived for a temporary pigeon lock down.

When leaving the house Saturday morning, I discovered a Cooper’s hawk nonchalantly consuming a freshly killed homer at the edge of my driveway. Returning home a bit later, I spotted a Cooper’s eating a second pigeon atop a melting, front yard snowdrift.

Making the most of an unwanted situation, I grabbed the camera and attempted to obtain a couple photos of the raptor with its prey. Although Cooper’s are notoriously high strung and difficult to approach, this hawk – an adult male – was decidedly different and allowed me to creep to within a few feet.

Hard to explain the bird’s unusually tame behavior. It seemed clear that the hawk was not injured and was in obvious good health. One possibility was that the hawk may have been raised in some remote forest where having had no previous contact with humans, viewed me as more of a curiosity than as any serious threat. Or it might have been one of an increasing number of Cooper’s hawks being produced in suburban, rather than wilderness forest, environments – hawks that have near daily exposure to the sights and sounds of people, cars, and lawnmowers.

One fact is certain. With their hyper-intense personalities and shrew-like metabolisms, migrating Cooper’s hawks are in a perpetual state of refueling, constantly hunting and consuming other birds. Although I wasn’t happy for my loss, it would be foolish to hold a grudge against a bird that had merely accomplished what it is naturally programmed to do. But now that I’ve contributed a full tank of gas to its future livelihood, I also hope that the visiting Cooper’s doesn’t waste any more time before continuing his migration.

Photos: Washburn Outdoors in North Iowa

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Reach Washburn’s Outdoor Journal at iawildlife.org/blog.

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