What’s the difference between a Cooper’s hawk and a red shouldered hawk?

Answered by Douglas Hiatt

Cooper’s hawks and red shouldered hawks are both magnificent birds of prey that can be found in North America. While they share some similarities, such as being skilled hunters and having a similar size, there are several key differences that set them apart.

One noticeable distinction between these two hawks lies in their feather patterns. The red shouldered hawk possesses distinctive black and white striped feathers on its wings and tail, giving it a unique and intricate appearance. This characteristic is absent in the Cooper’s hawk, whose feathers are generally more uniform in coloration. The presence of these striking stripes on the red shouldered hawk’s wings and tail serves as a helpful identification feature for birdwatchers and enthusiasts.

Another dissimilarity can be observed in the shape of their wings and tails. While both hawks have long tail feathers, the wingspan of the Cooper’s hawk tends to be more rounded, creating a sleek and streamlined appearance. On the other hand, the red shouldered hawk’s wingspan is more square-shaped, giving it a slightly different silhouette. These variations in wing and tail shape may be adaptations to their respective hunting styles and environments.

In terms of behavior, both hawks are skilled and agile hunters, preying on small mammals, birds, and occasionally reptiles. However, their hunting techniques and preferences may differ. Cooper’s hawks are known for their remarkable speed and agility, often chasing their prey through dense vegetation or forested areas. They are adept at maneuvering through trees and using cover to their advantage. Red shouldered hawks, on the other hand, are often found near bodies of water or in wooded areas, where they employ a sit-and-wait hunting strategy. They perch in trees or on utility poles, patiently scanning their surroundings for potential prey before swooping down to capture their target.

Furthermore, the vocalizations of these two hawks also differ. Cooper’s hawks have a distinctive high-pitched, repetitive “kik-kik-kik” call that is often used for communication between individuals. This call can be heard during courtship displays or when defending their territory. Red shouldered hawks, on the other hand, have a distinct vocalization that consists of a series of clear, high-pitched whistles. These calls are commonly used for territory defense and to attract mates.

It is worth noting that while these differences can generally help in distinguishing between the two species, there can be variations and overlaps in certain individuals. Additionally, various subspecies of the red shouldered hawk and Cooper’s hawk may exhibit slight variations in appearance and behavior.

In my personal experience as a birdwatcher, I have had the opportunity to observe both Cooper’s hawks and red shouldered hawks in the wild. The first time I encountered a red shouldered hawk, I was instantly captivated by its striking black and white striped feathers, which were beautifully displayed as it soared through the sky. The Cooper’s hawk, on the other hand, amazed me with its incredible speed and agility as it swiftly maneuvered through the dense foliage in pursuit of its prey.

The unique feather patterns, wing shape, hunting techniques, vocalizations, and habitat preferences of Cooper’s hawks and red shouldered hawks differentiate these two magnificent birds of prey. Understanding these distinctions allows bird enthusiasts to appreciate and identify these remarkable creatures in the wild.