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How to Age Cooper’s Hawks

Cooper’s Hawk in flight, displaying the long, rounded tail characteristic of the species. Image by Doug Brown.

We were thrilled to receive a new set of images from photographer Doug Brown this past weekend.  He had been photographing migrating  raptors along the Texas Gulf coast and snagged some great shots.   The hawk in the image above  is a second year bird.  While the hawk has mostly the gray feathers of the adult, as well as the rufous color on the breast, some brown feather remain on the back.  Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk have brown backs with some white spots on the upper back.  They molt into the adult plumage with a solid gray back during their second summer.   This bird also shows a yellow-orange eye color which is indicative of age in all accipiters.  However, the rate of change in eye color is variable and cannot be used to definitively age an accipiter.


Cooper’s Hawk displaying the attributes that characterize the species: short, rounded wings and a long tail. Image by Doug Brown.

Cooper’s Hawks belong to the accipiter family, also known as ‘forest’ hawks.  All three North American species, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, the Northern Goshawk, and the Cooper’s Hawk, have similar body shapes and are adept at pursuing prey through dense vegetation.  Cooper’s Hawks are primarily bird-eaters, although they also take small mammals and insects.

Cooper’s Hawk close up. Image by Doug Brown.

In the above image, a few brown juvenile feathers remain on the bird’s back.  Additionally, the gray ‘cap’ that is characteristic of the adult Cooper’s Hawk is not yet complete, also identifying this bird as being in its second summer.  Note the eye color on this hawk is still yellow.  Cooper’s Hawks have a prominent supercilliary bony ridge above their eyes as do Northern Goshawks.  The Sharp-shinned Hawk lacks the bony protrusion, giving it a bug-eyed appearance.

Adult Cooper’s Hawk. Image by Doug Brown.

The above image shows an adult Cooper’s Hawk with a solid gray back and a pronounced gray cap on its head.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk. Image by Doug Brown.

Finally, here is a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk with the typical brown back with white spots, the light-colored head, and the very pale eye color.  It is important to remember that eye color alone cannot be used to accurately age any accipiter.

7 Responses to “How to Age Cooper’s Hawks”

  1. Susan Leonard says:

    On our porch was a scrunched up hawk , brown w/white circles on its back ….it flew off when I tried to take its pic. I think it was a juvenile Cooper’s hawk. I think it flew into our window and was stunned by the impact

  2. Paul Schambers says:

    I live in Parkland Hills, where I’ve had a hawk visit my bird feeder for a number of years, but not this year. Nor have I seen nor heard the hawk at Hyder park nor Altura park. Am I there at the wrong time or are they gone?

  3. Derrick J. says:

    I just witnessed a yellow eyed Cooper Hawk catch a small bird outside my window. I have a bird feeder and I noticed something larger than normal in my side view. They are very majestic and quite interesting. And when he’s near birds and squirrels dissappear suddenly. But I did nothing to help the bird the hawk caught cause it to late anyway

  4. Chloe says:

    Keep up the good work on hawk eyes, you may find more info in the future

  5. Jerry says:

    Cooper’s Hawks built nest in yard about a month ago. When do juveniles begin flight?

  6. Janice Smith says:

    I have an immature Cooper’s hawk that visits me regularly. I have seen 2 at my birdbath but usually only 1 visits. He/she was in the bath for quite a while and sone if the birds returned. He/she looked but did nothing. Maybe he doesn’t like Titmouse and Chickadees. As for the squirrels he just looked even though there squirrel was protesting and standing his grounds. Such fun.

  7. Tony says:

    I have a hawk around my neighborhood that looks like it could be an immature Coopers hawk but the white spots on his back are big and all over. Can this be a variation or is it a different hawk species? here it is in two different locations



    • hai-admin says:

      Hi Tony,

      Thank you for writing and please accept my apologies for the very tardy response. The bird in your video is a Red-shouldered Hawk. As you noted, the spots are much larger and more numerous than those that would appear on a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk. If you visit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/ you will find a wealth of information about all the species in North America as well as beyond our continent.

      Gail Garber
      Executive Director

  8. farell says:

    gone moved on to better hunting grounds

  9. Gail Farley says:

    Week ago 3 Hawks flew off birdbath and into woods. No ID. Today viewed 2 through binoculars. Counted 8 white spots. Positive ID as juvenile Cooper’s Hawk. Again, flew off into woods. I was thrilled!

  10. Barbara says:

    Just escorted a very sweet juvenile out of our chicken pen when I got home at 10pm. (Hillsboro, OR) Thanks for the page that helped me get a positive ID!

  11. Jay F Michajluk says:

    Just took a picture, almost like the one posted above. (01/09/2020) Just after a snow storm here in South Central PA this Cooper decided to take up shop in the same tree as one of our bird feeders and wait for dinner. Because of its darker yellow eye, I would say this Cooper is a young adult.

  12. David Carroll says:

    I have a pair of cooper’s hawks that are displaying nest-building behavior. The female appears to be transitioning in plumage but the male seems to be more juvenile. Also, I have been given to understand that the female does most of the nest building but as yet I have observed only the male trying to snap off the end of slender branches. Could they actually be reproducing or would it perhaps be practice for next year?

  13. Jeff Harris says:

    I have a young one here.. I`m sure is the same one we had all this past winter and seemed all she was ever interested in was rats .. She got them all I think .. She`s back now to get control of the rats again thank goodness! Seen her nail one yesterday ..

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