Cooper’s Hawk vs. Red-Tailed Hawk: How To Tell the Difference

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Homeowners are allowed to humanely deter hawks from their property. Growing up, my mom always told me she would give me a dime if I spotted a hawk before she did. I tried my best, but I always saw them a split second after she did. “Hawk!” she’d say, pointing to a telephone wire or a fence pole.

As an adult, I still love seeing a hawk while driving down the highway. When I see them in my backyard, I get a little more nervous because that means they’re probably keeping an eye on my chickens and waiting for a chance to swoop in and catch one.

Are you a hawk-spotter, too? Depending on how long you’ve been watching for hawks–and how far away they are when you see them–it can be difficult to tell which species you’ve spotted.

Cooper’s hawks and Red-Tailed hawks are two commonly confused hawk species, so let’s look at what makes these two kinds of hawks different and what they have in common.

Identifying a Cooper’s Hawk

coopers hawk

First of all, Cooper’s hawks are smaller than Red-Tailed hawks. They also have different coloration, different markings, and a different tail shape.

Size Details of a Cooper’s Hawk

  • About the size of a crow
  • Male length: 14.6-15.3″ (37-39 cm)
  • Male weight: 7.8-14.6 oz (220-410 g)
  • Male wingspan: 22.4-35.4″ (62-90 cm)
  • Female length: 16.5-17.7″ (42-45 cm)
  • Female weight: 11.6-24.0 oz (330-680 g)
  • Female wingspan: 29.5-35.4″ (75-90 cm)

Coloration & Appearance

According to All About Birds, “Adults are steely blue-gray above with warm reddish bars on the underparts and thick dark bands on the tail. Juveniles are brown above and crisply streaked with brown on the upper breast, giving them a somewhat hooded look compared with young Sharp-shinned Hawks’ more diffuse streaking.”

red tailed hawk

This differs from a Red-Tailed hawk, which will have a shorter, wider tail than the narrow, long tail of the Cooper’s hawk. Also, the Red-Tailed hawk lacks the horizontal reddish bars across the tail. Their feathers are brown and cream, unlike the Cooper’s hawk’s blue-gray appearance.

Another way to differentiate the two birds by sight is that the Cooper’s hawk has much more spotting on its chest than a Red-Tailed Hawk.

Flying Behavior

Cooper’s hawks and Red-Tailed hawks have similar flying behaviors.

If you see a hawk from a distance, watch how they can go for long periods without flapping their wings. Both species can hover in the air on windy days as they take aim at their prey. They will often fly in broad, sweeping circles over an open field.

They will attack their prey by swooping low to the ground and then diving quickly.

Habitat

You will often spot a Red-Tailed hawk in the open country. They like to sit on telephone poles, fence posts, and tall trees and watch for prey. Sometimes, they may find their way to a backyard feeder or a suburban backyard, but Cooper’s hawks are even more likely to do this. Cooper’s hawks love deep forests and neighborhoods with plenty of trees.

Are Cooper’s Hawks Rare?

There was a time when hawks were endangered species.

In the 1930s, hawks and other birds of prey were regularly hunted for sport. In 1990, the LA Times wrote about how hawks, eagles, and falcons were at risk of extinction due to habitat loss. The pesticide DDT was a huge threat to large birds, as well.

However, Red-Tailed hawks were removed from the endangered species list and are no longer considered endangered or threatened!

Cooper’s hawks are not rare, but they are still a species of concern. They were initially identified as endangered in 1974, at the height of the DDT crisis. In 1999, their status improved to “threatened.” As of 2012, they are a “species of special concern.” That means they still need to be monitored, but they are not currently declining in population.

Common Questions About Hawks

Let’s look at some of the frequently asked questions that people have about hawks, including Cooper’s and Red-Tailed.

Hawks are beautiful, but they can also be intimidating because of their size and fierce appearance. Many people have questions about whether or not it is safe to have hawks around. Are you allowed to deter them from visiting your backyard? What do you do if they’re at your backyard bird feeder? Are they a threat to household pets like dogs and cats?

These are great questions! Fortunately, hawk behavior is pretty predictable, and we have lots of information about how they are likely to behave in different scenarios.

Can a Hawk Pick Up a 15-Pound Cat? What About a Small Dog?

The horror stories abound: A little dog or cat is standing in the yard, going about its business, and suddenly a hawk swoops in and steals it away to be its lunch.

Is this something that really happens? Is a 15-pound dog or cat safe from a hawk’s talons? What about a tiny pet like a teacup chihuahua or a little kitten?

First, it’s important to know that hawk attacks on pets are very rare. Great news, right?

A hawk only weighs a few pounds, and most pets weigh more than them. Cooper’s hawks only weigh about one pound, meaning there are almost no pets that a Cooper’s hawk could pick up and carry away. It is physically impossible for a hawk to fly off with something heavier than itself. In short, my little dogs are not at risk of being carried off by a hawk, and neither is your cat or dog.

Hawks eat small prey like snakes, mice, chipmunks, and small birds.

The Risks That Hawks Pose to Pets

There are some risks that hawks pose to pets, though.

A hawk can do a lot of damage without carrying off its prey. While a hawk is unlikely to attack a cat or dog and is generally unable to carry one off in flight, there are some documented examples of hawks attacking pets on the ground.

If you have backyard chickens or other poultry, you should take steps to protect your flock from birds of prey. A large chicken is a much easier target than a dog.

The Spruce offers some great advice about protecting your pets from hawks, eagles, and owls. They recommend the following:

  • Always supervise your pets outside
  • Use a covered pet area if possible
  • Provide natural cover, like bushes and trees
  • Exercise multiple pets at the same time
  • Train your pets to leave all birds alone
  • Feed your pets indoors instead of outdoors

Is It Legal to Shoot or Injure a Cooper’s Hawk or Red-Tailed Hawk?

In conversations about protecting pets and poultry from hawks, someone will often say, “Well, I would just shoot a hawk that was bothering my animals!”

As someone who loves birds, this recommendation always breaks my heart a bit! I don’t want birds to be injured just for doing what they were born to do.

And as someone who knows about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), I also know that anyone who suggests this strategy is talking about breaking the law.

You absolutely cannot harass, harm, or kill a hawk of any kind without a special permit from the federal government. Those permits are not handed out to anyone who wants one, either!

The MBTA was passed in 1918 and was later expanded and strengthened through the work of Rosalie Barrow Edge. She was a conservationist who fought to protect birds of prey from being slaughtered in unthinkable numbers. If you want to see large numbers of hawks and other birds of prey in the wild, you can still visit Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Barrow Edge founded Hawk Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains as part of her quest to protect these important species.

Options for Deterring Hawks

  • Plastic owl or hawk decoys
  • Use noise deterrents, such as an ultrasonic speaker
  • Put roosting spikes on popular landing spots
  • Remove food sources from the hawks
  • Cut down dead branches where hawks like to perch

Do Hawks Eat Other Hawks?

Hawks do eat other birds. What about other hawks? Would a Red-Tailed hawk ever eat a Cooper’s hawk?

A hawk’s diet definitely includes birds. They will typically only go after birds that are smaller in size. That includes baby birds, cardinals, doves, and other songbirds.

A hawk would be unlikely to attack a larger bird, so you won’t see a Cooper’s hawk, which weighs only a pound, attack a Red-Tailed hawk, which weighs twice as much. However, Red-Tailed hawks have been known to attack and eat Cooper’s hawks.

Another Hawk Species: Red-Shouldered Hawks

I haven’t talked much about Red-Shouldered hawks in this post, but I want to spend a little time on this interesting species before I wrap things up!

Red-Shouldered hawks have not recovered from the endangered and threatened lists as well as Red-Tailed and Cooper’s hawks.

Their numbers are increasing, and they are not currently identified as an endangered species across the board. However, their disappearance from some regions–especially the Northeast–has them labeled by states like New Jersey as endangered within the state.

They are smaller than Red-Tailed hawks but larger than Cooper’s hawks. I love how colorful they are, with dark and white wings that have a checkered pattern. Their breast boasts warm, red bars, and the black tail has several narrow white bands.

Advice for Spotting Hawks

If you want to see more hawks in your day-to-day life, you can! You can always train yourself to scan the sides of the road as you drive, especially if you are on a highway or a country road surrounded by fields. Hawks are territorial, so you may start to notice that they are in the same areas every day.

I can always trust that I will see a hawk on a certain fence post about a mile before the train tracks I cross on my commute!

One last trick for spotting more hawks is to invest in a good spotting scope! A bird spotting scope will allow you to see hawks that are much farther away. Binoculars are a good backup plan, but a spotting scope with a tripod will provide stability and the opportunity to take great pictures!

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Liz Ranfeld

Liz Boltz Ranfeld is an independent educator and writer from Indiana. She lives on the edge of the woods with her husband, 2 kids, dogs, chickens, and hedgehog. One of the best things of living in rural Indiana is spotting hawks, pileated woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and other wild creatures. She enjoys hiking, canoeing, and gardening, and one of her personal heroes is the conservationist and birdwatcher Rosalie Barrow Edge, who paved the way for the protection of birds around the globe.