My back door opens onto a wooden deck with lattice roof and sides, but opening into a yard full of trees and bushes and backing onto a woodlot. Neighbours on either side have removed most vegetation from their own yards, making my garden a bit of a wildlife oasis. One morning last winter as I looked out my back door at dawn, I was surprised to see an immature Cooper’s Hawk sitting on one of the deck’s support beams, less than five meters from me. I grabbed a small notepad used for grocery lists and started to sketch, wanting to show how the tips of the secondary wing feathers formed a nearly straight line across the lower back of the bird. I got that down and was about a third of the way through the drawing when she noticed me through the glass and took off. I finished my crude sketch from memory. Later, using my sketch, a study specimen of an actual bird, and with photos all around, I did this small oil painting, inventing more “natural” surroundings than my back deck.
These crow-sized hawks are increasingly common, after experiencing a worrying decline decades ago. A few years ago, a pair nested in a small, suburban woodlot across the road from me. At least one Cooper’s Hawk seems to visit me each winter, with Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) the most common prey, so much so that many years ago I painted an adult male with a fresh Mourning Dove kill (second attachment), “mantling” his prey with partly spread wings, a common behavior thought to help hide prey from other predators. The adults are very different in colour and pattern from young
birds, the males a lovely slate blue grey
above, females more brownish, both with highly variable fine reddish barring on the underparts and orange to red irises. Young birds are streaked and have yellow eyes. I also did a portrait of an immature bird some years ago (third attachment) showing that iris colour. Females are larger than males, which is how I knew the bird I sketched was a female. When in immature plumages the sexes look alike in color and pattern.
They nest in woods and forests across central and southern Canada south through most of the U.S., and are migratory, although here in the Greater Toronto Area we are well within the wintering range. They eat mostly small to medium-sized birds and mammals, but may take herptiles, or even large insects. They are bold hunters who daringly dash through wooded entanglements in hot pursuit of prey, twisting and turning with talons spread wide at the last moment, a dramatic sight to witness. They can lay from 1 to 7 eggs, but usually just 3 to 4 or 5. The female does most of the incubation of eggs and nurturing of chicks, but the male will relieve her when she eats the food he brings to her, starting to do so well before eggs are laid, and which she’ll share with her brood after they hatch.
Young start flying at about a month old.
The painting is in oils on a birch panel and is 12 by 9 inches.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731