CHICAGO — Laura Noe was starting her morning as she often does, watching the sparrows, doves and cardinals who come to the bird feeder she keeps in her Jefferson Park backyard, when she sensed a sudden change. "I turned my head for a minute," she says, "and the hawk was there. And all of the other birds had left."
Her late March visitor, it turns out, was a Cooper's hawk, a bird of prey that's roughly the size of a crow and is known to visit bird feeders -- but not for the sunflower seeds. The hawk, one of a pair who have been hunting and building a nest in Noe's neighborhood in the midst of a busy residential block, is also a part of a growing trend. In a study released late last year, University of Wisconsin researchers revealed that hawks, once in decline as a species, have recovered in numbers substantial enough that they are successfully expanding their territories into urban areas in Chicago.
Using data from decades of sightings faithfully reported by feeder watchers like Noe, University of Wisconsin professor of forest and wildlife ecology Benjamin Zuckerberg was able to show that only 20 percent of feeder watchers in the Chicago area spotted a hawk during the 1990s. Today that number is closer to 70 percent.
"Hawks like the Cooper's and sharp-shinned (a similar, smaller species) are classic woodland hawks," says Zuckerberg. "They were always traditionally thought about as these species that were really well adapted to big, uninterrupted forests. They're the quintessential woodland predators." Which is why Zuckerberg was surprised to see numbers rising sharply in city neighborhoods. "It turns out that many of these hawks are able to use urban areas, which is sort of unusual because you wouldn't expect them to be able to use an urban habitat."
During a period of decline that continued into the 1970s, hawks suffered the same fate as other avian predators, including the bald eagle, with populations that fell within a stone's throw of extinction due to habitat destruction and other factors such as poisoning from DDT pesticide use. "The Cooper's hawk used to be really rare," says Illinois Audubon Society Executive Director Jim Herkert. "It wasn't that many years ago you would never be able to figure out where to go see a Cooper's hawk around Illinois, so the fact that people are now seeing them regularly is a testament to how much the population has rebounded."
The hawks began to make inroads in populated areas by the 1990s, slowly increasing their numbers in suburban areas, then city backyards. Their skills as woodland predators helped them maneuver around new obstacles, such as power lines and houses, as they hunted in the confines of urban areas. "It's a real story of adaptation," Zuckerberg says, "if you think about how these recovered predators are now sort of free of persecution and can establish themselves here and colonize and persist for generations."
One factor that makes Chicago a hospitable home for hawks, Zuckerberg says, is that "they have enough prey." Larger and more common red-tailed hawks will hunt pigeons, rabbits or rats in alleyways and elsewhere in the city -- they have even been spotted hunting alongside the "L," following trains that flush out pigeons. But for Cooper's hawks, which typically specialize in prey about the size of a robin or dove, bird feeders are key. "Now that you've got a lot of people feeding birds," says Zuckerberg, "the secret is sort of out for these hawks."
City parks such as the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary are another draw for Cooper's hawks, which have been spotted perching silently in trees near the edge of woods as they wait for the right moment to surprise their prey.
In Noe's backyard, Cooper's hawks have become semi-regular visitors, and the neighborhood is watching with fascination as they work to build a sturdy nest, breaking twigs from surrounding branches to fortify their home. "It may be that they are thinking to settle down in this area for the season," Noe says, "since I'm basically laying out a buffet for them every day."
For hawks, a bigger population means a need for more territory, Herkert says. "Their numbers are increasing, and as the statewide population gets higher and higher, birds are going to fill more of the space. And my personal opinion is they are also in these areas because they're becoming more tolerant of people, getting more comfortable being around us."
Some bird feeder owners might not be as comfortable with the hawks, though. "Some people are like, 'Oh my god, it's terrible,'" says Zuckerberg, who takes a pragmatic approach to bird watchers who don't want to see feeder birds become a meal. "If people really don't want a hawk in their backyard, they can just remove their feeder for a couple weeks, and the hawk will figure it out and move on."
Noe says she's pro-hawk: "They're doing what comes natural to them; they have to raise their little ones, too, and survive. It's good to see that their numbers are strong enough that they are adapting and coming into the city, so I take it as a good sign."
Now, says Zuckerberg, it's city dwellers who will have to adapt to the hawks. "This is just a part of the natural world," he says. "It's just like if you were watching a nature documentary on the Serengeti. That same thing is playing out in your own backyard."