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Mountain Home Magazine

Circle of Life, Cul-de-sac, or Dead End?

Jan 29, 2021 01:56PM ● By Gayle Morrow

Imagine you’re hungry and you find yourself in a field full of things you like to eat. Maybe it’s crispy French fries, or macaroni and cheese, or some creamy thing with curry. Yum! Who wouldn’t dive in?

Perhaps that was the mindset of the young Cooper’s hawk who killed one of our chickens.

It was early winter, there wasn’t any snow on the ground, but it had been cold. The birds—chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, various woodpeckers, a few mourning doves here and there, and the ubiquitous blue jays—had been enjoying their daily scoops of sunflower seeds for several weeks already.

For the chickens, the under-the-feeder scene is like one of those fields full of deliciousness. The girls really enjoy sunflower seeds, and they’ve figured out that their wild brothers and sisters are not neat eaters. So, when they have the opportunity and conditions are right on the ground, they race each other up through the yard (really fun to watch) to that sweet spot under the bird feeders.

I can’t say for sure, but it seems like the Cooper’s hawk may have had that figured out, too.

The Cooper’s hawk, named, BTW, for naturalist William Cooper, is a member of the Accipitridae family, which includes species of hawks, eagles, vultures, harriers, and kites. Accipiter cooperii is a crow-sized bird with short, rounded wings and a long tail. The Cooper’s wingspan is a little over two feet; a typical adult weighs less than two pounds, with females being larger than males. The birds’ preferred habitat is forests and woodlots; they are adept at pursuing smaller birds through the woods’ thick brush and undergrowth. They’ve also been known to chase down small critters—chipmunks, squirrels, or mice—on foot, and will sometimes drown their prey. The Cooper’s hawk is renowned for surprise attacks, perching quietly until just the right moment, then wham! They sometimes lurk about at bird feeders, which was the scene of this encounter, but who can blame them? It’s that field-full-of-favorite-things scenario again. In this case, it was a field of human making, so we must assume a bit of the responsibility for what happened.

Like Vulcans (remember that episode of Star Trek?), Cooper’s hawks are a little secretive about their, uh, personal lives. We know they do sometimes mate for life and, as do other raptors, they have an aerial courtship dance. The male does the nest building, fashioning, from sticks, a cozy boudoir between twenty-five to fifty feet up in a tree. They like pines, oaks, Douglas firs, and beeches. Pairs will return to the same nesting areas, but prefer a new home each year. The Mr. leaves incubation and most of the chick care to the Mrs. (I will refrain from any sexist comments here), but will bring her food while she’s on the nest. The clutch of two to six eggs is laid in the spring between March and May. Chicks, who weigh an ounce at birth, hatch after about thirty days, then spend another month or so in the nest. After they fledge, they return to the nest daily for about ten more days for food; after that, they remain close to the nest and to each other for several more weeks. So, it’s possible the juvenile who killed our chicken had siblings and/or a mom close by, perhaps (no pun intended) egging him or her on.

We didn’t see the actual attack on our hapless hen, but there was the evidence, dead in the driveway, with the perpetrator struggling unsuccessfully to fly off with the meal. The adult chicken this young predator killed probably weighed four or five pounds, compared to his or her own pound or so. We think he or she must have been very hungry. An older, more experienced bird might have been a better judge of his or her own ability to carry away the victim, and would likely have been more wary of us, but we gave this youngster a lot of credit for trying so hard. Not that we were pleased, at all, about losing one of our beloved biddies, but everybody has to eat. So, we left the hawk alone to feed for a little while, then took care of what was left of our hen. We kept the chickens in for a few days so nobody else would get the idea that it was OK to consider our flock an ongoing buffet.

When I was looking for Cooper’s hawk information, I saw posts from traumatized backyard flockers who were ready to declare war on raptors who had the audacity to take one of their chickens. I felt bad for my chicken, too. She was one of our oldest girls, probably six or seven—and there she was, minding her own business, pecking away at sunflower seeds, and, just like that, it’s over. But when you pay attention to the natural world, you inevitably come to the conclusion that in order for something to live, something else must die. Our very existence displaces some other living thing. As humans we tend to not care, unless a death somehow affects us—maybe it costs us money or emotion, or it was the result of our own carelessness or laziness or ignorance. Were we directly or indirectly responsible?

If we took a life, was it necessary, and did we take it with respect?

I found this on a site called It’s from a book titled Martin Marten (and there is a charming picture of a marten on the cover) by Brian Doyle. It seems appropriate.

“...sometimes it just sort of floods in on you that you survive by killing other creatures, and you get a little sad. An excellent point, said his dad. But at least you are sensitive to it. That’s a step in the right least you have a certain respect and honesty about the system. That’s good. That’s a step toward reverence. Better that than the arrogant assumption that you can kill anything you like any time you like. That’s the wrong direction. That direction leads to more killing. Trust me on this one.”

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