Our Capitol Peregrine Falcons are quite popular and Peregrines in general are an iconic species. So much so that folks start seeing them in all sort of places. I receive calls every so often, but more frequently this time of year, from individuals claiming to see a Peregrine Falcon in their backyard. Before I get to my point I will just mention that it is great when people see and observe new things in nature. However, the new thing may not be a familiar species in an atypical habitat. Rather, it may be an unfamiliar species in its typical habitat. What people are almost certainly seeing when the see a raptor in their backyard that appears somewhat similar to a Peregrine is a Cooper’s Hawk.
Cooper’s Hawks are a type of hawk called accipiters and this species is both similar to and different than a Peregrine Falcon. The similar—Cooper’s Hawks and Peregrines appear superficially alike and are about the same size. Adults of both species have dark bluish upperparts and pale underparts. Both species also feed primarily on birds and both are found in Nebraska. The different—Cooper’s Hawks are ambush hunters that are built for maneuverability in habitats with lots of obstacles, such woodlands. Peregrine Falcons are built for speed in open environs. The Cooper’s Hawk has rounded wings and a long tail that helps them maneuver. Peregrines have pointed wings and a relatively short tail, again, less for maneuverability and more for speed. If birds were aircrafts a Cooper’s Hawk would be an Apache Helicopter, while a Peregrine Falcon would be a F-15 fighter jet.
Peregrine Falcons are not expected in the open woods of suburbia or cruising all that close to the ground. I say expected because in the bird world anything is always possible. Birds have wings and they will occasionally use them and they don’t often check with bird nerds to see what they can and cannot do. However, Peregrines are very much aerial hunters that enjoy staying up in the stratosphere (a bit of an exaggeration) and when they do come close to earth it is usually in open areas when they are chasing prey such as shorebirds. Most people know that Peregrines will prey on Rock Pigeons (the common urban pigeon), but did you know there are still plenty of Rock Pigeons hanging out around the lower levels Capitol? That is because the Peregrines aren’t comfortable operating that close to the ground. Speed can give you a heck of an advantage, but can be a problem when there are trees and buildings to collide into.
Cooper’s Hawks have increasingly adapted to suburban environments and have increased overall in Nebraska over the past few decades. And why not? Humans put out bird food and baths that attracts lots of small birds predictably to the same spot. An ideal opportunity for an ambush! However, Cooper’s Hawks do a pretty good job of going unobserved. Part of being an ambush hunter is surprise.
One final note, there is also another species of accipiter very similar in appearance to the Cooper’s Hawks that can be found in suburbia during winter and spring and fall migration; the Sharp-shinned Hawk. Not sure which species you’ve been seeing? visit these sites for identification information:
Thanks to Jo Stutheit and Jan Johnson for the use of their photos!