Friday, February 17, 2012

Super-Duper Cooper Scoop

This is the bird we saw. Distance, small camera, gray day--best we could do.
There are plenty of signs that hawks live in our neighborhood (the avian kind, not the war sort--this is Phinney Hill, after all). Sometimes on a walk you'll come across drifts of fluffy gray feathers encircling the base of a telephone pole, or a sudden explosion of feathers in the middle of a parking strip that indicates ground zero of an attack.

But you rarely get to see the hawks themselves.

Twice, sitting in the backyard, I've been startled by a large bird flying bullet-fast at low level, getting no more than a glimpse of sharply snapping wings before whatever-it-is disappeared behind shrubs and trees. Once, during January's snowfall, a small hawk darted above the merrymakers sledding on the hill.

And once, in Fremont, while walking to a coffee shop early on a Sunday morning in spring, I nearly tripped over an American kestrel that suddenly landed in front of me and seized a mouse that I hadn't even noticed (but it had locked in on from above the rooftops). It stared fiercely at me for a fraction of a second before flying off with its prey locked in its talons.

That was it for neighborhood hawk sightings until several days ago, when my daughter and I went for a walk with the dog. A few blocks from home, we suddenly heard a loud "Bek! Bek!" Looking up, we spied a large raptor perched atop a conifer.

"Dang," I said. "Figures I don't have a camera with me."

With that, my daughter offered to run home and fetch it. And she did. (Unexpected acts of generosity from one's adolescent offspring are something I cherish even more than the sighting of a rare bird.)
I'm pretty sure this bird is a Cooper's hawk, a species known to frequent Seattle along with the smaller, similar sharp-shinned hawk. It appears to have a cap, unlike the "sharpie," and when it finally flew away, its tail had the rounded outline of a Cooper's (though I only saw it in silhouette against a dark gray sky).

There's also local lore to draw on to back up this assumption: Just last August, a local news blog featured photos of a Cooper's dining on pigeon in an area backyard, and Cooper's hawks have been mentioned in numerous newspaper articles over the past 20 years whenever there's space for an item about wildlife in the city. An old "Washington Birds" book published by the Seattle Audubon Society in 1968 also notes that the Cooper's "is perhaps the most common, or at least the most widely seen" of the accipiters (birds of prey with short, rounded wings and long tails).

My favorite local story comes from a friend whose son had a hamster, which he set outside in the yard in a hamster ball one warm afternoon. He was supposed to stay with his pet, but he skirted the rules to run inside and get a snack. When he looked outside, he saw a Cooper's hawk standing next to the hamster ball, staring hard at it. You can just imagine what was going through that bird's mind--perhaps the same frustration we all feel when confronted with newfangled, difficult-to-remove packaging.

Cooper's hawks prey mainly on small birds and are considered an important check on their populations. They're feisty birds, however, and aren't afraid to tackle larger prey, which accounts for their unofficial name of "chicken hawk."

Disparaging names like this one, which link a wild creature solely to how its habits may vex or harm people and their possessions, are typically avoided nowadays because they unfairly portray the animal as "good" or "bad" when it's simply trying to make a living, but it hasn't always been this way, especially for predators.

In Audubon's description of the species, the naturalist--who surely knew that predators play an important role in nature and who only had good things to say about crows--described the Cooper's with terms such as "marauder" and "miscreant" and its killing of prey as a "murderous deed." (However, he does also call it "daring" and attributes it with "courage," and doesn't outright condemn it, so he was probably just employing the flourishes so typical of nature writing in his era.)

Naturalist William Dawson, writing more than 100 years after Audubon in the 1923 book Birds of California, seems to be gritting his teeth as he considers the Cooper's, which, after all, dines on the little birds he loves: "One never gets a clearer insight into the possibilities of cruel rapacity then when a Cooper Hawk comes dashing up into a thicket where you have been ogling Sparrows....It is as though an emissary of the nether world had broken from cover; and one feels all the virtue of a just cause in putting him to death."

Fortunately, Dawson wasn't in the habit of going around potting hawks (whereas Audubon, in writing about his collecting habits, always puts me in mind of Elmer Fudd blasting at everything in sight). Sadly, a century ago negative attitudes toward birds of prey were encouraged by some leading zoologists, who seemed to have a chip on their shoulders regarding certain animals that no amount of scientific evidence would ever dislodge.

No less a luminary than William Hornaday, one of the saviors of the American bison and founder of the Bronx Zoo, described the Cooper's hawk as "companion in crime to the [sharp-shinned hawk] and equally deserving an early and violent death." (Then again, Hornaday thought caging and exhibiting native African peoples in his zoo was a dandy idea.)

People still get irritated, of course, if predators make off with their chickens today, though most people (including farmers) are now aware of the beneficial services provided by raptors. Online comments about the pigeon-eating Cooper's in my area, for example, ring with pro-hawk endorsements and anti-pigeon invective (with the only complaining about nature's ways coming from one oddball vegan decrying the hawk's act as "terrible"!).

I'm thrilled to have spotted the neighborhood raptor at last. Now I don't have to go out and buy a hamster and a hamster ball to better my chances.