Diagnosis: Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper's hawk.
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I still have trouble at times telling the difference between a sharp-shinned hawk and a Cooper's hawk. So if you do, too, you're not alone! I've read a number of resources to help differentiate them, and just when I think I have it down, I see one that I can't quite identify with certainty.

The problem is that you can't just use one field mark to tell the difference. Cooper's hawks are bigger—sometimes. Sharpies' tails look squared off—sometimes.

And then there's the comparative field marks like the Cooper's head being larger wherease the sharpie's head is rounded. Or that the sharpie's legs are stick-like while the Cooper's legs are thicker. The sharpie tail has a narrow white tip while the Cooper's tail has a wide white tip. Yeah, all this would be easy if they were sitting side-by-side, but that doesn't happen! And I find the in-flight characteristics—like the Cooper's slower wingbeats or that the sharpie's small head doesn't extend past the wings—even harder to pick out.

So I like when one of them flies up good and close, sits for a just a little while, and shows a number of field marks nice and clearly with little room for interpretation.

Like this guy (or gal). Rusty barring on the chest, slaty back, and red eyes tell me it's an adult bird of one of these species. That's the easy part. Its smallish size has me thinkin' sharpie. Nice squared-off tail—another point for a sharpie. Skinny little legs, more like a twig than a branch—sharpie. More subjective (to my eyes) is the broader chest and narrower bottom of the sharpie.

Okay, I think I've got this one down: I have a number of characteristics that all say "sharp-shinned hawk!" But chances are when the next hawk comes through my yard, I'll have my bird books out again!

About Nancy Castillo

Nancy Castillo is co-owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop in Saratoga Springs, New York. You can follow the bird activity in her yard at The Zen Birdfeeder blog.

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