Lynxes of the bird world: Cooper’s hawks nest in Berkeley

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Cooper’s hawks are woodland hawks, about the size of a crow. They are often mistaken for their smaller dove-sized cousins, sharp-shinned hawks. Location: Nimitz Way, Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

They’re secretive, stealthy and quick. Allen Fish, director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, calls them “feisty.” Cooper’s hawks, he says, are “the lynxes of the bird world” that pounce on pigeons and swoop between buildings. And, though Cooper’s hawks are hard to find, we know, at first fleeting glance, that we’ve seen something wild and unusual.

Until about 15 years ago, these woodland hawks made rare appearances in cities like Berkeley, and nesting here was practically unheard of. This spring, however, Fish estimates that Cooper’s hawks are constructing between five and 15 nests across the developed areas of Berkeley and Albany (excluding the hills) — evidence of their great swooping strides towards overcoming their bad reputation as “chicken hawks.”

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Cooper’s hawks have long tails for speedy maneuvering through the trees. Location: Nimitz Way, Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

As late as the 1960s, people regularly shot Cooper’s hawks as vermin. “Frankly,” says Fish, “it’d be like putting a bobcat in the chicken coop.” He admits that in the 1950s his own grandmother — “the sharp-shooter of the family” — had a Cooper’s hawk on her mantelpiece. She purportedly stopped more than one hawk on its way to the hen house.

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Medium-sized birds, especially mourning doves, rock pigeons (shown above), and American robins, perch at the top of the menu for hungry Cooper’s hawks. Location: Piedmont Avenue, Oakland. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

But attitudes have changed, and the once-reviled “chicken hawks” have earned new respect as “farmers’ friends” for hunting rats and mice. Laws have changed too, and, in 1972, Cooper’s hawks and other raptors gained enforceable protection through the longstanding Migratory Bird Treaty Act.


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Cooper’s hawks nest in tall trees with closed canopies, preferably near a stream. Location: Live Oak Park, Berkeley. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

Habitat is another reason for the hawks’ come back. In many Bay Area cities, trees have grown up and canopies have filled in, offering new places for Cooper’s hawks to nest.

Fish also credits Berkeley, in particular, for its restoration of riparian (creekside) zones, and suggests that Cooper’s hawks might serve as “flagship species” for further stream habitat renewal.

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Save the hawks: fliers posted on telephone poles urge residents to stop using rat poison — at Bancroft Way at Curtis St. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

“It just thrills me to see hawks overhead, but I have a constant sense of worry,” says Lisa Owens Viani, co-founder of Raptors Are the Solution (RATS). In 2007, two fledgling Cooper’s hawks drowned in her neighbor’s son’s wading pool, and, a year later, she found an adult Cooper’s hawk collapsed on the sidewalk in a pool of its own blood. Laboratory results revealed that all three hawks had ingested rat poison (the anticoagulant, brodifacoum), which causes unquenchable thirst and agonizing death.

Viani recently posted 20 fliers around her West Berkeley neighborhood, where Cooper’s hawks are currently nesting.

“It’s logical,” she says, “Yet most people don’t make the connection between ‘pests’ and effects on the predators that naturally eat those ‘pests.’”


Hawks are not alone: owls, foxes, coyotes, dogs, and cats all run the risk of being poisoned by their prey. But Viani remains optimistic and believes that most people would stop using rat poison if they only knew its broader impacts.

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This Cooper’s hawk took a swoop at a western bluebird —the one that got away. During its Berkeley-based study (led by biologist Ralph Pericoli), the GGRO found that Cooper’s hawks had hunted rodents and more than 17 types of bird, from songbirds to escaped budgie parakeets. Location: lower Codornices Creek, between 8th and 6th Streets, Berkeley. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

May and June are the best months for viewing Cooper’s hawks, when hawk parents busily perform take-out service for their hungry chicks — as many as five chicks per nest. That’s a lot of mouths to feed — and a good reason to keep looking up.

Where to look for cooper’s hawks:

  • Along creeks
  • Near birdfeeders
  • Amongst tall trees with closed canopies
  • In rural and more recently in urban areas

Listen for their calls too:

You can listen to the Cooper’s Hawk here. This Cooper’s hawk is giving an alarm call. Translation (in Fish’s words): “Get the hell away from my nest.” Courtesy of California Library of Natural Sounds and Oakland Museum of California.

But don’t be fooled. Steller’s jays are clever copycats and they mimic the vocalizations of Cooper’s hawks and other local raptors. They also do convincing impressions of squirrels, chickens, cats, dogs — even the sounds of doors creaking and telephones ringing.

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“If only I were a hawk!” Steller’s jay. Location: Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Photo: Elaine Miller-Bond.

For more information on Cooper’s hawks in Berkeley, read the GGRO’s nesting study.


Learn how rat poison harms wildlife — and solutions — by watching RATS’s 10-minute video.

[Special thanks to Allen Fish, Lisa Owens Viani, Rusty Scalf (Golden Gate Audubon Society (GGAS)), Eddie Bartley (GGAS, GGRO), Nathan Kerr (California Library of Natural Sounds).]

Elaine Miller Bond is the author/illustrator of Affimals: Affirmations + Animals and the upcoming sequel, Dream Affimals, from Sunstone Press. She is also the photographer for The Utah Prairie Dog (University of Utah Press), projected for publication in 2014.

Read previous local nature stories with photographs by Elaine Miller Bond:

The mystery and thrill: Shorebirds enjoy winter in Berkeley [03.21.13]
Sitting on the dock of the bay: birds throng Berkeley pier [02.28.13]
Rare bluebird sightings bring happiness in a Berkeley park [08.07.12]
In Tilden Park’s Jewel Lake: Spotting a rare river otter [04.05.12]
Up close with Berkeley’s wildlife at Tilden Regional Park [03.06.12]

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