Seriously, it could happen to anyone.
Well, any working mom operating on instinct and snap-judgements who needs to snag some groceries before she flies back home to those perpetually ravenous kiddos.
Okay… maybe it couldn’t happen to anyone. But every now and then, once in a very blue moon, some harried female Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) will be scanning earth and sky for something to serve for supper, probably thinking about the million other things on her to-do list, and she’ll innocently, accidentally, absentmindedly, kinda-sorta… confuse her spouse for take-out.
At which point she becomes a single working mother.
Now, before you get all mommy-shamey (“I would never feed my children their dad for dinner, but maybe that’s just me…“), at least hear her side of the story.
First of all, you need to understand that most predators have a niche, a specific go-to prey that’s based, at least in part, on their particular hunting skill-set. Coopers are no exception; as one of the world’s most adept and daring fliers, they’re capable of barnstorming through a tangle of tree leaves, twigs, and branches as they chase down some chow. Naturally, their aerial talents give Coopers an edge when it comes to the pursuit of other winged creatures. Sure, if the opportunity presents itself they’re not going to turn up their beaks at a frog, a chipmunk, or a bat but the Coopers prey of choice is birds.
When a Cooper’s prey drive kicks in, male and female alike, the only thing that matters in that moment is hitting the target. They don’t even give much consideration to potential risk to life and limb, it seems. According to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, a study of this species found nearly a quarter of the 300 skeletons examined had healed chest fractures, especially of the furcula (aka wishbone, analogous to the collarbones in humans).
Of course, just because you’re willing to endure some broken bones to get the job done doesn’t mean you wouldn’t welcome easier access to some eats. Coopers are savvy enough to recognize that a backyard bird feeder is the hawk equivalent of a drive-through restaurant. If they’re lucky enough to have one or more of these bistros in their neighborhood, they’ll cruise on over and hang out in some nearby foliage until feathered patrons stop by for a snack, then grab-and-go. The humans who stock these seedy establishments can get pretty judgemental about what they view as harassment, or even exploitation, of their preferred clientele but that’s the biological carbon cycle for you. Everybody’s gotta eat.
Which brings us back to the hawk who mistook her mate for a meal.
Like many raptors, female Coopers are quite a bit larger than their male counterparts—taller, heavier, longer wing-span, you name it. But it’s not her size that puts him at risk; it’s his.
See, Coopers tend to focus their hunting efforts on pigeons, mourning doves, flickers, cowbirds, kestrels… in other words, avian species ranging in size between an American robin and an American crow. Ironically, at 14½ to 15¼ inches from beak to tail-tip, the male Cooper’s hawk fits neatly into his very own prey niche. Add to the issue of similar stature the fact that both predator and prey share, in many cases, a color palette of whites, grays, and rusts, and it’s obvious to the most casual observer how the daily chore of hustling up some grub for the family can easily turn into an unfortunate case of mistaken identity.
I guess blue moons and beleaguered female hawks aren’t as uncommon as one might think because male Coopers have a stereotypic strategy for dealing with a distracted but fiercely efficient domestic partner. First, as he approaches the home-front, he flies in large, slow arcs and hollers out the hawk version of “Honey, I’m home!!” Then he listens carefully for the female’s “all-clear” response call, signaling that she sees and recognizes him. When he arrives at the nest he’ll have a thoughtful gift in his bill… a little something for her and the chicks to nosh on, or a few home maintenance supplies. Cuz, you know, it never hurts to tip the scales in your favor.
Happy hawk wife, longer hawk husband life.
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© 2019 Next-Door Nature. No reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work, just ask first). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license (from top to bottom): Hal Trachtenberg, Jenny, Chuck Roberts, Jeff Bryant, and Hal Trachtenberg.