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Earth Notes: Cooper’s Hawks

Brian Millsap, NMSU

Hawks that choose the city life are thriving in some places.  In fact, in New Mexico Cooper’s haws are edging out their rural neighbors from the best nesting spots.

These hawks were once believed to shy away from people. But now they’re commonplace in cities like Albuquerque, where they’re finding a year-round banquet of pigeons and white-winged doves.

Urban hawks spend their winters snatching up easy meals around shopping malls and movie theaters. Meanwhile, hawks that live in nearby mountains and river valleys have to fly south when food becomes scarce.

Wildlife biologist Brian Millsap wanted to study this urban/rural divide. He tagged and tracked several hundred hawks in the Albuquerque area and learned they have a competitive edge in the area of romance.

Each spring, Cooper’s hawks pair up and build a nest, often on the ruins of an old one. The female incubates a clutch of blue eggs, while the male takes on the role of food delivery service. That explains why female hawks seek out the most experienced hunters with the best territories for mates.

The research showed that urban hawks start their courtships early, long before their rural neighbors return. They claim all the good spots in town, then spread into the countryside. When the migrating hawks arrive in April, they’re latecomers to the party where everybody else has already paired up and gone home.

Future research may reveal how the unequal competition is altering the habits and evolution of Cooper’s hawks. For now, it’s clear these adaptable birds—once wary of humans—have found a way to flourish alongside us.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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