Illustration of sharp-shinned hawk

Illustration by Donald L. Malick and N. John Schmitt


Map: Sharp-shinned hawk range


Our smallest accipiter, the “sharpie” is a jay-size hawk that frequents backyard bird feeders in winter, bursting from nearby bushes to snatch a small bird off a branch. Although some homeowners vilify them, sharpies serve a needed function of keeping wild bird populations healthy and wary. Sexes look alike, females are larger than males, adults differ from immatures. Polytypic (10 ssp.; 3 in North America). Length 10–14"(25–36 cm); wingspan 20–28" (51–71 cm).

Identification A small, round-winged, long-tailed hawk of woods, edges, and mixed habitat. The tip of the tail appears square, bands are wide and straight. The head is rounded, with a distinct “notch” in the profile from crown to beak. The eye appears more centered in head. Adult: blue-gray crown and nape are same color as the back, creating a “hooded” effect against the  buffy cheeks. The eyes are red-orange (females) to deep red (males). Underparts are barred rufous; undertail is white. Juvenile: brown back feathers have rufous tips, white spots on wing coverts. Eye color is pale yellow. White undersides are streaked to belly with blurry brown lines. Flight: quick, choppy wingbeats interspersed with short glides. Almost no “flex” to the wing. When gliding or soaring, wings  are held forward with wrists bent, the head barely projecting in front of the wings.

Geographic Variation The subspecies velox is common throughout most of North America; perobscurus, found on the islands of British Columbia, is darker and more heavily barred; suttoni of Mexico, into Arizona and New Mexico, is lighter, with fainter barring.

Similar Species The Cooper’s hawk is noticeably larger, although small males in western populations approach large female sharpies in length, but have a longer, rounded tail and flatter head. An adult Cooper’s has a dark cap, not hooded as in sharpie.

Voice A high, chattering kew-kew-kew is heard around the nest, otherwise it is mostly silent.

Status and Distribution Widespread in northern and western forests. Breeding: prefers coniferous and mixed forests, makes a small stick nest usually high and close to the trunk. Migration: the commonest accipiter seen at hawk-watches; adult birds prefer to follow mountain ridges, while many juveniles end up following the East Coast. Juveniles migrate first, followed by adults. Winter: throughout much of North America and into Mexico.

Population Never abundant, but steady.

—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006

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