Welcome, birdwatchers! Are you having trouble distinguishing between Cooper’s hawk and red-tailed hawk? These two raptors are often mistaken for one another due to their similar size and coloring. However, there are distinct differences that can help you tell them apart. Understanding their unique traits is essential for bird identification and can enhance your birdwatching experience. In this article, we’ll explore the physical characteristics and behaviors of Cooper’s hawk and red-tailed hawk to help you spot the differences!

Key Takeaways:

  • Cooper’s hawks and red-tailed hawks are often confused for one another due to similar size and coloring.
  • Understanding each species’ unique characteristics is important for bird identification.
  • Cooper’s hawks have distinctive features such as a black cap and red eyes, while red-tailed hawks have a reddish-brown tail and a distinctive call.
  • Behavioral patterns such as hunting techniques and habitat preferences also differ between the two species.

Cooper’s Hawk Characteristics

Cooper’s hawks are a medium-sized bird of prey, measuring around 14-20 inches in length with a wingspan of 24-36 inches. They are slightly larger than the similar-looking sharp-shinned hawk, but smaller than the red-tailed hawk.

These hawks have short, broad wings and a long tail that helps them maneuver through the dense cover of forests where they hunt. Their plumage is dark gray on their back, with a lighter brown or beige belly and black and white stripes on their tail.

One of the distinctive features of Cooper’s hawks is their red eyes. They have a hooked beak that is sharp and strong, which they use to tear apart their prey.

These hawks can be found in a variety of habitats, including forests, woodlands, and suburban areas across North America. They migrate to the southern United States and Mexico during the winter months.

To identify a Cooper’s hawk, look for its pointed wings, rounded tail, and red eyes. They are also known for their fast, direct flight pattern and short bursts of wing flapping followed by gliding.

Cooper’s Hawk Key Facts

  • Medium-sized bird of prey
  • Measures around 14-20 inches in length
  • Wingspan of 24-36 inches
  • Red eyes
  • Dark gray back, lighter brown or beige belly, black and white striped tail
  • Found in forests, woodlands, and suburban areas
  • Fast, direct flight pattern with short bursts of wing flapping followed by gliding

Red-Tailed Hawk Characteristics

Red-tailed hawks are among the largest raptors in North America, with a wingspan that can reach up to four feet and a weight of around 2.5 pounds. They have broad wings with a distinctive reddish-brown coloring on their tails, which gives them their name. Their plumage can vary from light to dark brown, and they have a pale underside with dark markings on their wings.

These hawks are commonly found in open country areas such as grasslands, deserts, and fields, but can also be spotted in wooded areas and along forest edges. They are widespread throughout North America, from Alaska to Panama.

To identify a red-tailed hawk: Look for its broad wings, reddish-brown tail, and pale underside. Listen for its distinctive high-pitched scream.

Cooper’s Hawk Behavior

Cooper’s hawks are agile predators with a distinctive hunting style. They are often seen darting through trees or chasing prey along fence lines.

These hawks are opportunistic hunters and will prey on a variety of small to medium-sized birds, including doves, quails, and songbirds. They are also known to hunt mammals such as squirrels and rabbits.

Cooper’s hawks are solitary birds but may form bonded pairs during breeding season. They build their nests in trees, often close to a source of water, and will fiercely defend their nest site from potential threats.

During courtship, male Cooper’s hawks perform impressive aerial displays, flying high into the sky before diving down in a fast chase. After mating, the female will lay 2-6 eggs, which are incubated for around 35-36 days.

Once hatched, the young remain in the nest for 5-6 weeks and are dependent on their parents for food and protection. Juvenile Cooper’s hawks will leave their parents’ territory after 2-3 months.

Red-Tailed Hawk Behavior

Red-tailed hawks are known for their highly skilled hunting techniques and remarkable aerial displays. They are opportunistic predators, meaning they will hunt a wide variety of prey depending on what is available in their habitat. Their diet typically includes small mammals like rodents and rabbits, as well as reptiles, amphibians, and sometimes birds.

Red-tailed hawks are also known for their distinctive hunting behavior called “still-hunting.” This method involves perching on a high branch or other elevated location, scanning the area for prey, and then swooping down to catch it. They will also soar high in the sky, using the thermals to gain altitude and then dive down to catch their prey in mid-air.

The nesting behavior of red-tailed hawks is also noteworthy. They build large stick nests, usually located in the forks of tall trees, and will often return to the same nest year after year. Mating pairs will defend their territory and nest aggressively, using vocalizations, physical displays, and occasionally physical attacks to fend off intruders.


Learning to distinguish between Cooper’s hawk and red-tailed hawk is a valuable skill for any birdwatcher. Understanding the unique characteristics and behaviors of these raptors can enhance your appreciation of these magnificent creatures and help you identify them in the wild.

Cooper’s hawk can be identified by its dark head, back, and wings, with a rust-colored barred breast and long, narrow tail. They prefer to nest in forests and woodlands and feed on smaller birds and mammals.

Red-tailed hawk is characterized by its reddish-brown back and wings, contrasting with a light-colored chest and belly. They are commonly found in open areas like fields and deserts and feed on a variety of prey, including rodents and snakes.

As you observe these birds in their natural habitats, take note of their behavior. Cooper’s hawks tend to move quickly and fly low to the ground when hunting, while red-tailed hawks soar high and swoop down on their prey. Their distinct habits will help you identify them from a distance.

By mastering the skills of identifying these magnificent birds, you can have a more rewarding birdwatching experience and a better understanding of the natural world around you.


Q: What is the difference between Cooper’s hawk and red-tailed hawk?

A: Cooper’s hawks and red-tailed hawks are two different species of hawks. While they may share some similarities, there are several key differences between them. Cooper’s hawks are generally smaller in size with slimmer bodies and shorter wings, while red-tailed hawks are larger with broader wings and a more robust build.

Q: How can I identify a Cooper’s hawk?

A: Cooper’s hawks have distinctive features that can help with identification. They have a dark gray or blue-gray back, a white or cream-colored breast with reddish bars, and barred tails with a rounded tip. Their eyes are usually bright red. Pay attention to their size, shape, and coloration, as well as their behavior, to help confirm the identification.

Q: How can I differentiate a red-tailed hawk from other hawk species?

A: Red-tailed hawks have specific characteristics that set them apart from other hawks. They have a reddish-brown back, a pale breast with dark streaks, and a red tail with a dark band near the tip. Look for their distinctive “belly band” pattern across their chest and their broad, rounded wings. Their call, a high-pitched screech, is also a good identifying characteristic.

Q: What are some behaviors that differentiate Cooper’s hawks from red-tailed hawks?

A: Cooper’s hawks are known for their agility and speed in flight. They are skilled hunters and can maneuver through dense vegetation while chasing prey. Red-tailed hawks, on the other hand, often prefer open areas and spend more time soaring in the sky. They rely on their keen eyesight to spot prey from a distance.

Q: What are the hunting strategies of red-tailed hawks?

A: Red-tailed hawks are opportunistic hunters. They primarily hunt small mammals like rodents and rabbits, but they also eat birds, reptiles, and amphibians. They use a combination of perching, soaring, and hovering to locate their prey, and then swoop down with great speed to catch it.

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