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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Mike Jacobs: Cooper's hawks thrive in city limits

Birds don't make headlines every day, but a Cooper's hawk did it during Hurricane Harvey. The bird turned up in a taxicab and quickly became known as Harvey the Hurricane Hawk.

What was a Cooper's hawk doing in Houston?

It's a good question, and it could just as well be asked of Grand Forks. Cooper's hawk has become the raptor most likely in our town.

This is a recent development, and one that surprised birders and bird scientists, as well. The first sentence of the species monograph in "Birds of North America" declares, "The Cooper's hawk is a crow-sized woodland raptor." That sentence was published in 1993.

That's about the time Cooper's hawks began populating North American cities, including Grand Forks.

Why would this happen?

Perhaps the birds were reacting to changes in forest habitat. Perhaps they were responding to foraging opportunities in cities.

The opportunity would be easy prey, perhaps a result of the growth of bird feeding as a hobby. Small birds tend to congregate at bird feeders, turning them into fast food franchises for species that prey on small birds. Such as Cooper's hawks.

Anyone who's walked both an alley in Grand Forks and a path in a Minnesota forest knows which has more birds, and so do the hawks.

Easy move

Moving from woodland to city isn't so big a change. Cities are forested landscapes. Grand Forks has the largest concentration of woodland between the Minnesota lakes country to the east and the Devils Lake area to the west. To the northwest, the nearest woodland is in the Pembina River Valley. To the south, it's in the Fargo metro.

The move to town isn't the only change in Cooper's hawk habits. In "Birds of Prey" (published this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Pete Dunne writes, "I very respectfully take exception to" the label. Rather than a woodland bird, he asserts, the Cooper's hawk is an edge species that often hunts over open country. He compares its hunting habits to those of the harrier, a familiar bird in open grasslands here and elsewhere in North America.

Dunne also speculates that dietary choice, not just predator abundance, may have prompted the urbanization of Cooper's hawks. Their favorite prey items, he asserts, are members of the pigeon family, including urban pigeons and mourning doves. Historically, he notes, Cooper's hawks dined on passenger pigeons, now extinct — though from human hunting pressure rather than predation by the hawks.

Cooper's hawks might be met in many Grand Forks neighborhoods. I've seen them in Riverside Park on the north end and near Sertoma Park on the city's west side. I've also met them in downtown East Grand Forks.

For the most part, the birds are migrants, but they've been recorded on Christmas bird counts here.

Apt comparison

The Cooper's hawk is a good-sized bird. The comparison to a crow is apt in that regard. Overall, the bird appears slate-colored on the back and rusty underneath. Its head appears large, its tail long and its wings rounded.

This is not the only hawk species nesting in Grand Forks, of course. The local peregrine falcon pair has been covered extensively, and merlin, another falcon species, nests in the city as well.

None are numerous as Cooper's hawk, though.

Local raptor expert Tim Driscoll has followed the hawks closely, trapping and banding them and assessing their individual health and the health of the population in general.

As to Harvey the Hurricane Hawk, the latest news is that he's recovering from injuries at a wildlife rehabilitation facility in Houston. He's likely to be released — not into the wild, exactly, but into the city.

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