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NATURE HAPPENINGS - April 2008

The Gang of Three

by Damian Fagan

Cue the Spaghetti Western music. The original Wild Bunch pales in comparison to this gang of killers, who often leave nothing but a trail of feathers in the wake. No, they aren’t a bunch of chicken thieves, although they’ve been known to sample the poultry every now and then. One of them has even been called “chicken hawk,” but certainly not to its face.

This gang passes up buckskin for a steady breeze and a tight squeeze through the trees. Patient as a statue, they case their jobs from concealment before they rush into things. Tough as nails, the Gang of Three is best known by their individual nicknames: Sharpie, Coop and Goz. They use to be wanted in many a western state, but now there are laws protecting them. In case you’re still wondering, these two-legged desperadoes are of the “feathered” kind.

The Gang of Three are close relatives in the Accipiter genus, a group of about 50 hawks worldwide. The term “accipiter” is from a Latin word meaning “hawk or bird of prey.” These birds have short, rounded wings and long tails. The short wings are for bursts of speed and the tails act like rudders, steering the birds through wooded forests. Another interesting trait in the group, and of many other birds of prey, is the size variation between males and females, where females are larger.

Three accipiters live in the Southwest – the northern goshawk, the Cooper’s hawk and the sharp-shinned hawk. Goz, Coop and Sharpie. The young of each species somewhat resemble the other two, except in size. This commonality sometimes makes identification difficult for birdwatchers. Adult sharp-shins and Cooper’s hawks also have similar plumage, at times creating confusion.

The largest of the trio, the northern goshawk averages about 23 inches in body length and has a 43-inch wingspan. This large, dark-backed bird has black streaks and bars on a gray body and a distinctive white eyeline. Often found within ponderosa pine, aspen or mixed coniferous woodlands, these powerful raptors were once the bird of choice by noblemen falconers. Slightly larger than a crow, the adult goshawk has an orange-red eyes. The birds nest in the La Sals and Abajos where they feed on rabbits, squirrels, grouse, jays, woodpeckers, and other species. Steller’s jays will often respond to a playback tape of a goshawk’s call, sometimes imitating the high-pitched scream of a red-tailed hawk.

Cooper’s hawks are medium-sized accipiters that are more widespread than the goshawks. Named in honor of William Cooper, an 18th and 19th century ornithologist, Coops are birds of woodlands and forests. These birds also nest along riparian areas in cottonwood trees or in urban areas with tall trees and plenty of prey. Like the goshawk’s, Coop’s build a bulky stick nest high up in a tree, often in an upper fork. These nests are easy to see in early spring before the cottonwoods leaf-out, but there are often several nests in a breeding territory. Birds, small mammals and lizards make up most of the Coop’s diet. Once known as the “chicken hawk” because of its propensity for poultry, these birds were persecuted due to that predation.

The smallest of the gang is the sharp-shinned hawk, named after its flattened, bony tarsus. In winter, sharpies are widespread and often seen in urban areas perusing the bird feeder selections. During the breeding season they head farther north and higher up in elevation. Their stick built nests are much smaller than a Cooper’s is, and the two species tend to avoid nesting in the same vicinity since the sharpie may fall prey to the aggressive Cooper’s. Smaller songbirds compromise the majority of a sharpie’s diet, but it will take birds larger than itself or occasionally pick off small mammals, grasshoppers, or butterflies. Previously known as the “sparrow hawk” this name gives an indication as to the prey size sharp-shins prefer.

At one point in time, these three were wanted mostly dead than alive solely because they were predators and early ornithologists thought they were protecting “beneficial” songbirds by removing the predators. Goshawks and Cooper’s hawk that strafed backyards for chickens fell to buckshot, as farmers protected their flocks. Fortunately, much has changed over time and now these birds are protected under state and federal laws. And though their actions may still resemble a bunch of outlaws, at least the posse is more sympathetic to their plight.
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