Cooper's Hawks Nesting in our Yard in Amarillo (Updated)
Updated: Nov 14, 2020
COVID-19 turned the summer of 2020 into an odd time with little travel, no picnics, no parties, and few amusements. But my husband, Rohn Butterfield, and I were fascinated with the daily drama of a pair of Cooper's Hawks nesting in our suburban front yard in Amarillo. The large nest is 50' high in a solid British Elm and has provided shelter from hard rain, hail and blistering heat for the two hatchlings.
Cooper's Hawks are still considered rare for Amarillo during the summer. Kenneth Seyffert literally wrote the book on birding in our area, "Birds of the Texas Panhandle", based on all the historical records and his own 50 years of meticulous observations in the second half of the 20th Century. He writes, "I know of only one reported nesting of the Cooper's Hawk in the [Texas Panhandle]" and that occurred in Hemphill County in 1954. "The countless hours spent afield during the last 50 years by many observers would surely have turned up at least a few adult Cooper's Hawks if nesting was occurring, however secretive the species." (Seyffert, p. 87-88).
More recently, nesting pairs have been reliably reported in Palo Duro Canyon for the last couple of summers. But we were very surprised that these "reclusive" hawks would decide to construct a nest in a front yard in the Woflin neighborhood and give us a front-row seat to the birth of their little family.
We first noticed the brown, streaky sub-adult female, who we named "Lily", taking twigs from our backyard on April 20, 2020. Not even a year old herself, she was busy on our block for a couple of weeks, building a nest (which is supposed to be the male Cooper's Hawk's job). The bluish-grey, block-headed mature male didn't show up until the beginning of May. Because of his resemblance to Alex Karras in Blazing Saddles, he was dubbed "Mongo".
Here's how Cornell describes Cooper's Hawks: "Among the bird world’s most skillful fliers, Cooper’s Hawks are common woodland hawks that tear through cluttered tree canopies in high speed pursuit of other birds. . . . Once thought averse to towns and cities, Cooper’s Hawks are now fairly common urban and suburban birds. Some studies show their numbers are actually higher in towns than in their natural habitat, forests."
Cooper's Hawks are very vocal during mating season, with their distinctive "Kek, kek, kek" announcing whenever they are nearby. During early May, Mongo called out to Lily several times a day, allowing us to grab a camera and record their movements. During the first 10 days of May, Mongo brought Lily dinner and then mated with her while she was still eating. We were able to photograph them mating on May 10, 2020.
Within a few days, Lily was sitting on the nest all day and night, while several times each day, Mongo provided her tiny birds, which he carefully plucked before offering. She left the nest only briefly during those weeks of incubation to hop to a nearby branch and consume whatever small bird he had hunted for her. Before approaching the nest, each time Mongo loudly called out to her to let her know that dinner was ready.
The common wisdom is that if the male sneaks up on the female or displeases her, she is about 30% bigger than him and will kill and eat him. Cornell's All About Birds website says, "Life is tricky for male Cooper’s Hawks. As in most hawks, males are significantly smaller than their mates. The danger is that female Cooper’s Hawks specialize in eating medium-sized birds. Males tend to be submissive to females and to listen out for reassuring call notes the females make when they’re willing to be approached." Fortunately, no mariticide occured with our nesting hawks!
In the afternoon of June 19, 2020, we noticed Lily pulling off pieces of her latest meal to feed to something in the nest. Two somethings, actually. The nest was too deep to get a look at the hatchlings at that time. Scarily, about an hour after we first saw Lily feeding the somethings, the skies darkened, the wind started blowing and hard rain and quarter-sized hail started pelting the nest. Lily sheltered the two hatchlings well, and just four days later, we caught our first glimpse of the two white puffballs.
Mongo was allowed on the edge of the nest as he brought food to his family, but Lily did all of the feeding until the babies were three weeks old, when Mongo was first spotted tearing the prey apart and giving it to the young ones.
Apparently, Lily and Mongo are good providers because the babies grew very quickly. "Bart" and "Jim, the Waco Kid" (to continue the "Blazing Saddles" homage) sprouted feathers and lost most of their cotton ball fuzz (which is sticking to the twigs in the nest now) in the first three weeks. They readily ate whatever Lily tore up for them until approximately day 20, when we saw them eating on their own for the first time.
On Sunday morning, July 12 (approximate day 24), we were excited and terrified to see the babies leave the nest. They each hopped/flew to the branches surrounding the nest, even leapfrogging each other in short little flights.
Bart and Jim continued to (awkwardly) venture from the nest for the next several days before taking their first real flights. Then they stuck around the yard for several weeks, roosting in the nest at night and eating prey provided by their parents, who continued to protect them.
We were very blessed that for the next four or five weeks, Bart and Jim stayed nearby, learning to hunt from Mongo. Lily disappeared as soon as the babies fledged and left all the heavy lifting to Mongo. But he was up to the task.
Every other day or so, we heard Bart and Jim's rather sweet talk in the mornings and/or evenings and found them perched in one of our trees or running across a neighbor's roof, often together. They hunted cicadas and small birds somewhat successfully, but despite a valiant effort, could not catch a squirrel.
After they were 8 weeks old and had spent a month learning to fly well and to hunt, we stopped seeing Bart and Jim as frequently. They were supposed to move on to establish their own territories. A few times, we still heard their quiet calls. Once in October 2020, when a Great Horned Owl perched in a neighbor's tree, both Mongo and Jim showed up to complain.
Now, in the fall of 2020, we infrequently hear Mongo or Lily's familiar "kek, kek, kek." Yes, Lily did come around once in a while when the fledglings were actively hunting this area. She occasionally still does. She has gotten her adult plumage and is significantly bigger than Mongo now.
This is Mongo's year-round territory, so we see or hear him frequently.
Our hope is that Mongo and Lily decide to raise another family in the same nest in 2021. The prospects of that surged one day in October 2020, when we saw the two of them hanging out in their nesting tree for at least an hour. We imagined that they were swapping stories of the kids and discussing having more next summer. Hey, we can always dream.