Red-Tailed Hawk vs Cooper’s Hawk: What’s The Difference?

red tailed hawk vs coopers hawk

When it comes to identifying different birds of prey, there are many things that you can look at to determine the species of hawk that you saw on your recent walk.

In this article, we’re going to have a look at some of the differences between the Red-Tailed hawk vs the Cooper’s hawk. These are both birds that you might see while you’re out and about and might want some help in identifying correctly.


Main Characteristics Of Both Birds

First up, let’s compare the main characteristics of both birds.

Characteristic or Feature Red-Tailed Hawk Cooper’s Hawk
Weight From 1.5 pounds to 3 pounds From 0.5 pounds to 1.5 pounds
Height From 17 inches to 25 inches From 14 inches to 17 inches
Wingspan From 44 inches to 52 inches From 24 inches to 35 inches
Back Feathers Rich Brown Blue-gray
Belly White with brown streaks White with reddish bars
Tail Pale yellow underneath and cinnamon-red above White with thick dark gray bands
Head Dark brown with white throat Dark gray cap on top
Eyes Yellow Red
Natural habitat Open fields & woodlands Wooded forests
Preferred food Small animals Small birds
Number of eggs 1 to 5 2 to 6
Incubation period 28 to 35 days 30 to 36 days
Nestling period 42 to 46 days 27 to 34 days

From this we can see that the Red-tailed hawk is much larger than the more diminutive Cooper’s hawk. There’s also a fair variation in the colorings of the birds. The Red-tailed hawk is more of a rich, dark brown color while the Cooper’s hawk appears more dark gray.

Other Notable Differences To Look Out For

Apart from their size, there are other characteristics that make these birds unique. Notice that the Cooper’s hawk has a dark-gray cap on its head while the Red-tailed hawk’s head is mostly dark brown.

In addition, there’s a marked difference between the tails of both birds. The Cooper’s hawk has a long, narrow tail usually with dark horizontal bands. On the other hand, the Red-tailed hawk has a much shorter and wider tail and does not have the horizontal bands.

The Cooper’s hawk also has more markings on its chest than the Red-tailed hawk. The markings on the Cooper’s hawk start near the throat and extend most of the way down the chest and belly. These markings are a reddish-brown color.

On the other hand, the Red-tailed hawk has far fewer dark markings and these are mainly on the belly and are dark brown in color.

The other notable difference is that a mature Cooper’s hawk has red eyes while a mature Red-tailed hawk has yellow eyes.

Differences In Habitat

Generally, if you see a hawk or two hanging around your backyard, it’s likely to be a Cooper’s hawk. These birds normally inhabit wooded forests but many of them have now moved into suburban areas as the forests start to diminish and there are more available food sources in inhabited areas. Especially since many people now put out bird feeders to attract many different species of small birds. Cooper’s hawks are also more acrobatic when they’re in flight as they dart around bushes and trees.

On the other hand, Red-tailed hawks are more cumbersome in the air and prefer to perch high up on tree limbs, telephone poles, and fence posts to sit quietly and keep a keen eye out for suitable prey. These larger hawks are rarely seen in suburban backyards.

Differences In Preferred Prey

Of course, when there are differences in preferred habitat, you would also imagine that there would be differences in preferred prey. And, as far as Red-tailed hawks and Cooper’s hawks go, you would be right.

Red-tailed hawks, being a larger bird, generally prefer to feast on small mammals such as rabbits, rodents, voles, hares and squirrels. However, red-tailed hawks have also been known to prey on birds such as pheasants, starlings, blackbirds and yes, even Cooper’s hawks.

On the other hand, Cooper’s hawks tend to primarily prey on smaller birds such as doves, starlings, pigeons, robins, jays, quail, pheasants and chickens. At times, Cooper’s hawks will also raid the nests of smaller birds and may prey on chipmunks, hares, mice, bats and squirrels.

Differences In Nesting

Red-tailed hawks commonly nest in the crowns of tall trees or on cliff ledges. These nesting sites all give them a commanding view of the surrounding landscape. Both male and female red-tailed hawks share the nest building. The nests are usually made from dry sticks and can be up to 3 feet across. The female lays between one to five eggs and these are normally white with buff, brown or purple speckles.

On the other hand, the Cooper’s hawks build their nests in tall trees such as pines, beeches, oaks and spruces that are often situated in dense woodlands. In this species, it’s the males who build the nest and this usually takes them around two weeks. These are also made from sticks and can be up to 27 inches in diameter. Once the nest is built, the female will lay from two to six eggs and these are usually pale blue to bluish white in color.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Red-tailed hawks eat Cooper’s hawks?

Yes, Red-tailed hawks have been known to prey on Cooper’s hawks.

What is the largest hawk?

The largest of the hawk species is the Ferruginous hawk.

Are Cooper’s hawks aggressive?

Because they’re territorial birds, Cooper’s hawks can be aggressive toward other raptors especially near their nesting sites.

Final Thoughts

There are quite a few differences between the Red-tailed hawk and the Cooper’s hawk apart from the difference in size with the former being much larger than the latter.

If you have hawks visiting your yard, they’re likely going to be Cooper’s hawks as these birds like to feast on small birds that frequent backyard feeders as well as chickens. If you want to protect the pretty songbirds that visit your feeders, consider taking them down for a few days as this should encourage the hawks to move on.

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