Bird Watcher's General Store

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Identifying Cooper’s Hawk vs. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Dear Bird Folks,

I recently saw a hawk burst out of one of our cedar trees and chase a small bird. The hawk had pointed wings and a long, narrow tail. I’ve decided it was either a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but the two birds confuse me. Would you explain the differences between the two birds in one of your columns that I enjoy so much?

– Mayo, Orleans, MA


You betcha, Mayo,

I know there are a lot of people who wouldn’t allow themselves to be influenced by a passing compliment, but I’m not one of those people. I don’t care what the question is, there is no way I’m not going to answer it after I read that you “enjoy” our column “so much.” Even though I already have a pile of questions on my desk, yours immediately went to the top after I read those nice words. I like hearing nice words. A plate of baked goods would be better, but I’ll take what I can get.

Week after week, year after year, you’ve heard me defend all of our native birds no matter what others have to say about them. The big birds, the mean birds, the ugly birds – I like them all. However, there are two birds that really test my blanket allegiance to all birds. Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks are notorious for catching and eating birds at our feeders and I hate that. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t begrudge these hawks for eating backyard birds. They can eat all the birds they want (except chickadees). The problem is if one of these hawks continuously hunts in a particular backyard, the other birds may avoid that yard (and its feeders) for quite a while. When that happens I get complaints from the homeowners. They don’t complain about the hawks because they rarely ever see the hawks. They blame the birdseed for their lack of birds. Listen to me; it’s not the birdseed’s fault. It never is. It’s the danger from the hawks. It’s like opening up a gourmet restaurant in a bad neighborhood. No matter how fabulous the food is, the customers aren’t going to show up if they are afraid of being eaten while they are slurping their soup du jour. Hawks keep birds away from feeders, not birdseed. Okay?

Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks are similar-looking hawks that belong to a group of raptors known as “accipiters.” Accipiters are woodland hawks that have short wings and long tails. These features help the hawks maneuver in between trees and bushes at full speed. While many raptors sit and wait for prey, red-tail style, or even hover, like Ospreys, accipiters are more aggressive. They’ll often choose a location of high bird activity (like a backyard) and zoom in full-blast in hope of catching some daydreaming bird by surprise. Here at the store, there is one particular Cooper’s Hawk that regularly uses our building to conceal its attacks. The bird will zip across the front of the shop, flying tight along the wall. When it reaches the end of the building, it takes a hard left turn to where we have the feeders set up. Sometimes there are birds at the feeders and the chase is on. Other times there are no birds to be found and the hawk looks a little silly. Wait! Did I say, “there are no birds to be found”? Must be something wrong with the birdseed.

Cooper’s and sharpies are the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers of the hawk world. Like the woodpeckers, both hawks dress the same with the major difference between the two being their size. Sharpies are about the size of a Blue Jay, while Cooper’s Hawks are crow-sized. Last year, photographer extraordinaire, Liz Hogan, sent us two pictures that really make distinguishing these two birds easy. In the first pic there is a Sharp-shinned Hawk standing next to a robin that it had just killed. The two birds looked basically the same size. But then, not wanting to miss out on an easy meal, a Cooper’s Hawk moved in and the sharpie took off. (The robin on the other hand, being already dead, decided to stay.) Liz’s second photo showed the Cooper’s Hawk towering over the robin, like a big fat crow.

Another difference between the two hawks is that the sharpie has a squared-off tail. The tail is straight across the bottom, as if it has “sharp” edges. Cooper’s Hawks have rounded tails, with rounded edges, like the shape of a barrel, which is made by a “cooper.” BTW: Cooper’s Hawks aren’t named after barrels. They are named after a guy named Cooper. Sharp-shinned Hawks are so named because they have very ugly long legs. Really.

Ninety-nine percent of the hawks that chase our backyard birds will be either one of these two hawks, Mayo. If it is big and robust, like a crow, it’s a Cooper’s Hawk. If it is sleek, like a jay, it’s a sharpie. The presence of either bird can cause your feeder birds to avoid your yard for a while. Just be patient, your birds will return. They always do. Just make sure the food in your feeders remains dry and fresh. And above all, resist the urge to call me to complain that your birdseed is no good. Please. I’m begging you.

Thanks again for the kind words about our column. You know, for saying such nice things maybe I should be the one who makes you a plate of baked goods. Right. We both know that’s not going to happen.