By Keith Michael
A snowball whizzes across the street. That’s about the time one has to snap an identification onto a bird flying high above even the modest scale of our West Village buildings.
Let me get this out of the way right at the beginning. Does one need to name a bird by species to enjoy its presence? I have pondered and argued this question multiple times, and the answer is a definitive, “No!” One can bask in the form, the color, the speed, the mystery, the otherness, the happenstance of seeing it—as many layers as one can personally conjure—and none of those need a common or scientific moniker to season that bouillabaisse of relishing the bird. However, like falling in love, it’s difficult not to find out more and more in the process, and that might include, “What’s your name?”
Even though this unseasonably late first snow has already dwindled to slush on the sidewalk, I convinced Millie to follow her nose into this winter (squishy) wonderland. I don’t think that it’s only because a corgi’s nose is closer to the sidewalk, but for Millie, snow does seem to amplify the olfactory clues buried there (or possibly snow does obscure the smells so that she has to work harder at it.) While whip-lashing between looking up to see what might be flying overhead and looking down to be sure that Millie isn’t snagging some fast-frozen tidbit under the snow, on the upswing, I catch the banded tail of a Cooper’s Hawk traversing Perry Street.
Inevitably, I’ll be asked, “Now how could you tell that was a Cooper’s Hawk, in the, like, less than a second that you saw it?” Well, frankly, in the West Village in January, there really aren’t so many choices as to what kind of a large bird it might be. Likelihood is the first clue. Throughout the winter, I do see a Cooper’s Hawk nearly every other day if not more often. There are likely several of them that have taken up winter quarters, but I’ve only ever seen one at a time. I’m sure that the pigeons in the neighborhood aren’t too happy about their seasonal presence. Often in the morning on my way to the subway, if I see a flock of pigeons circling speedier than usual, it’s not a surprise to find a Cooper’s in pursuit. Look for the one bird that is “not like the others” and try to follow it, unless you’re not prepared for the likely conclusion to this chase scene. If you’re a pigeon (which is unlikely if you’re reading this) that’s not the way you want to start (and end) your day.
Of the other common birds considered from my mental pull-down list: a Red-tailed Hawk is larger and proportionately broader, a Common Crow doesn’t have a prominently long tail and has a generally flappier wing stroke (as well as it often keeps a few cronies in formation), or a Gull is lighter in color, has thinner wings, and usually flies much higher. Of course, looking up on a gray day and seeing a solitary flying bird, size and color can be deceiving.
A Kestral or a Peregrine Falcon are other raptors that are entertaining possibilities. Both can be seen during these winter days though both are sleeker and might be more easily mistaken for a pigeon, particularly the diminutive parti-colored Kestral. A Peregrine would be a choice sighting at any time! Another choice worth considering is the similar Sharp-shinned Hawk. This close relative of the Cooper’s is generally smaller, though the larger female Sharp-shinned can be the same size as the smaller male Cooper’s. A useful tip for discerning the difference between the two in flight is that though both have a characteristic flap-flap-flap-glide style. If those flaps are more of a blur it’s a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and if you can count the flaps individually it’s likely a Cooper’s.
If you do get the chance to look at a perched Cooper’s Hawk on a fire escape enjoying the sun, you might notice its handsome chevroned chest pattern, neatly horizontally striped tail, and tidy cap.
Millie suddenly tugs me away from the street. She’s done. Enough with the ice between her toes already. Seeing a Cooper’s Hawk on this brief excursion was excellent. Off we go, back inside, to dream of winter eagles and owls.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com for books, photographs, and the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs. Visit his Instagram @newyorkcitywild for photos from around NYC.