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The combat would fit perfectly in a TV show with an ugly title like Nature's Death Battles: Four young Cooper's hawks are ganging up on a gray squirrel in a vicious struggle in the matted leaves under the oaks and maples. The birds are about six weeks old and almost as big as crows, so their prey is in the fight for its life.
There's little cover except for a brush pile a foot or two high running the length of the woods. The squirrel runs toward a rail fence at the trees' edge, but a hawk flaps past him and blocks that path. He darts back toward the brush pile, and another Cooper's responds accordingly.
The birds seem awfully young to be hunting cooperatively, but they're doing well at containing the squirrel, who's proving to be a formidable foe. He's fending them off by biting, jumping, kicking, scratching and flailing away with everything he's got.
That fierce defense – and his attackers' apparent inexperience – are all that's preventing the squirrel from becoming a meal. When the hawks do engage him in direct "talon-to-claw" fighting, he appears to inflict more wounds than he receives.
The brawl intensifies, and the birds try to move in even tighter, right into the thrashing teeth and claws. In that instant, an adult female hawk – "Momma Coop" – swoops into the woods about a yard off the ground and right through the fight. Her abrupt intervention breaks up the battle, and the squirrel seizes the opportunity to escape into the brush pile.
The adult Coop continues her flight into a tree overlooking the brush, within just a few yards of a human observer who is covered by camouflage. The bird seems to pay no attention to him.
Three of the juveniles join the adult in an adjacent tree. After a couple of minutes, she swoops down onto the brush pile, flushes out a chipmunk, catches it with her powerful talons and flies off; the three closest juveniles follow her.
The fourth young hawk, a male, has been watching from the ground. He wings his way over to the brush pile, not far from where the adult had just caught the chipmunk. He picks at the sticks a while and flushes out another chipmunk, a less difficult adversary than the squirrel. The hawk catches it with little problem and begins tearing it apart and eating it on the spot.
Two of the other juveniles return and perch in branches about 25 feet away from the male and his meal. He continues consuming his catch, stopping only to mantle – raise his wings like a shield to hide and protect his prey from other birds.
The young Cooper's hawk finishes off the chipmunk and flaps to the top of the brush pile. Using his beak, he removes the chipmunk residue from his talons and feet and then cleans his beak by brushing it against some sticks.
With that completed, he flies out of the area, followed by one of the two remaining birds. The last one glides down to where the male had finished eating and pokes and scratches around the bloodied twigs and leaves. When she finds nothing that holds her attention, she flies off toward the others.
The human observer in this real-life drama was not a research scientist, but me – a decidedly unscientific school administrator who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The right place was not wilderness, but merely the woods on our two-acre parcel in a subdivision in Plover, in the heart of Wisconsin.
I had not gone looking for the hawks; they just found likable habitat, and I happened to be there. I'm no Cooper's hawk expert. Indeed, my sole previous mention had been a conversation with my father back in the 1950s on our farm in Waupaca County.
As a kid back then, I spent many summer hours watching large, soaring hawks ride thermals over our fields. They were redtails, and nearly everybody called them "chicken hawks," though my dad didn't think those big hawks were the chicken thieves. He said the real robbers were the "Coops." But he said they hadn't been around our place in a long, long time, and I never did get to see one on the farm.
More than 40 years later, here I was, watching a whole bunch of Cooper's hawks. It happened only because a series of fateful occurrences converged that summer:
As fate (version 1) would have it, a second semester course called Raptor Ecology had been offered at UW-Stevens Point, right up the road from my place. It was all about hawks and other Wisconsin raptors, so I signed up as a middle-aged, non-traditional student, just for the excitement of learning some science to go with my memories.
As fate (version 2) would have it, halfway through the semester, we spotted a couple of hawks hanging around our place. How fortuitous: having some real live birds to observe as I studied them in school.
As fate (version 3) would have it, we learned that the raptors in our woods were Cooper's hawks. Great, I'd finally get to see some authentic chicken hawks!
And then as fate (version 4) would have it, my professor was Dr. Robert Rosenfield; not only a gifted teacher, but a world-recognized researcher and authority on Cooper's hawks.
The hawks in our woods had a nest in a large white pine about 100 feet behind the house, and they hatched five young ones in it. The parents and offspring all became part of Dr. Rosenfield's research when he trapped and banded them in late June. Then, when the little ones fledged and left the nest in mid-July, we thought we had seen the last of them. However, we soon found out they had staked a claim on our woods as their own homestead, and stayed until early August.
Dr. Rosenfield said we had a unique opportunity to observe immature Cooper's hawks for an extended period, something that few people get to see. We made more than 80 observations of the young hawks' activities during their 3½ -week stay.
As the hawks grew in age from about six weeks to ten weeks old, their loud and frequent calling would trigger our observations. We would hear them outside and I would don some camouflage and slip out to watch them.
The young Cooper's hawks displayed a wide variety of behaviors, ranging from solitary resting to dynamic group activity. Here's a representative sample of the kinds of things we saw.
Gender differences: The juvenile hawks did not all look alike. I remembered from class that Cooper's hawk females are about one-third larger than males. The males in our group were not only smaller, but their coloration was noticeably different. While juvenile Cooper's typically have vertical streaking on the breast, markings on these males appeared significantly more pronounced than on the females.
Absence of adult hawks: Some studies have suggested that after fledging, young Cooper's hawks periodically get fed by the parents. We never saw an adult bird feeding a youngster.
We only saw an adult with the juveniles two times. The first instance I've described, and a second time when two young hawks aggressively chased one another through the woods, calling loudly at each other. They landed on the same branch and began pushing and jostling one another, barely keeping their balance. The adult female flew to the tree the young hawks were in, landing on a branch just above the battling juveniles. They immediately stopped fighting and flew off as soon as she touched down on her perch.
Frequent flyer exercise: Routine behavior for the young hawks during most of our observations involved groups of the birds just flying back and forth within the woods. The hawks swooped into the woods, flying only a yard or so above the ground, rising above the bushes and descending again, following the contours of the ground cover. One hawk and then another would take the lead, all of them staying within a couple yards of each other.
When they landed, they frequently settled for just a few seconds before taking off again. There was usually much loud "eeeee – eeeee" calling among them, and for long periods, individual birds would not get more than four or five yards away from one another for more than a few seconds during these maneuvers.
Physical contact between hawks: At times, the hawks physically challenged one another. In one instance, two females stayed right beside each other, less than a yard apart. They hopped from branch to branch as a pair, first one and then the other initiating the move. There was frequent and considerable physical contact between them, with a great deal of wing flapping and pushing at each other, though the behavior did not appear hostile.
We observed many instances of the juveniles trying to catch prey animals. Some incidents revealed that the birds were still learning; other times they showed a remarkable adeptness at catching food.
Hunting postures: Typically when hunting, the young hawks firmly gripped a branch with both feet, sitting erect with the head held up. In this position, the hawks frequently turned their heads side-to-side and up-and-down.
One of the juveniles varied its hunting posture by hunching over in a vulture-like stance, taking on a "skulking" appearance, as if trying to get a better view of some prey.
A rough landing: One juvenile hawk flew into a dense thicket of branches after seeing a squirrel. Without sufficient space to completely clear the branches, one wing got caught and the bird could not keep its balance. It tipped off the branch and had to resume flying as it fell toward the ground.
Group hunting: In another hunting incident, four of the immature hawks group-attacked a chipmunk. They lunged at him repeatedly, but not in a well-organized attack. After a minute or so, one bird caught it, and flew out of the observation area with the chipmunk; the other birds following.
Male hawk mantling over prey: In one of the most interesting observations, one of the males swooped down to the ground, and after a flurry of activity, flew up to a large branch overhead, carrying a chipmunk. He was quickly joined by two of his female siblings, one landing on his branch and the other right above him.
Those two birds called frequently and gradually worked their way closer to the male, which had begun eating his catch. When approached within a yard or so, he mantled over his meal until they backed off. One of the females finally flapped right up next to him and did not back off. Instead, she moved even closer, with physical contact and intense calling by both birds. She quickly retreated, but the male did not resume eating until she had turned her back to him.
Two females sharing food: Mealtimes weren't always contentious. In one instance, two female juveniles flew into the observation area, landing on low branches right above the brush pile. One swooped down to the brush, and after a brief commotion, hopped up to the top of the pile with a chipmunk.
The other hawk flew down and landed about a yard from the bird with the food. That hawk with the chipmunk began eating it, and the other moved closer. The eating bird mantled over her food, but put down her wings when the approaching bird reached in and tore off a piece of the animal and ate it. The two hawks continued to alternate their feeding until the chipmunk was totally consumed.
The opportunity to hang around juvenile hawks for a few weeks was exciting and enlightening. It helped me connect to my younger years on the farm and see some of the hawks' interesting behaviors. By the time it was all over, I appreciated just how lucky we had been to be in the right place at the right time.
And for the record, in our weeks of watching the Coops, not once did we see them take a chicken!
In addition to being a hawk-watching farm boy, Jim Nicewander is an administrator with the Stevens Point Area Public School District.