Bird of the Week – The Sharp-shinned Hawk

by Bob Walker

The nature center generously provides food for birds, squirrels, and chipmunks so that visitors can watch wildlife from the observation room, and this room is one of our most popular attractions. While we would love it if these wild creatures were always actively feeding, chasing, singing, and flying around, there are times when the wildlife activity drops to zero for no apparent reason. This week’s bird may be the culprit. Always on the lookout for a snack, the Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) patrols areas where there is a lot of bird activity, and this very agile flyer will swoop down and take unsuspecting prey. Sharp-shinned Hawks depend almost exclusively on small birds for their diet, and we have been getting regular visits from a “Sharpie” this winter at the nature center.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is the smallest hawk in the Accipiter genus. The males are similar in size to a dove, and are much smaller than females, sometimes only half their weight. The hawk shown in the photograph above is probably a young bird, based on the presence of some brown feathers on his wing, and his orange-colored eye. Juvenile birds have light yellow eyes, and as they age, their eye color turns more and more towards red.

Across most of the USA, Sharp-shinned Hawks are strongly migratory, although our local eBird reports show that they are found in Los Alamos County all year long. Primarily secretive forest dwellers, they will prey on birds at home feeders, which does not endear them to many.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is easily confused with another local Accipiter, the Cooper’s Hawk. Both birds have dark heads, yellow legs and feet, a finely barred orange breast, and strongly barred tails. There are a few subtle field marks that will help you distinguish between them, if the hawk is cooperative enough to give you time to look at it closely. We will talk about these differences in our upcoming article for the Cooper’s Hawk.

Find more detailed articles about Sharp-shinned Hawks on these web pages: identify.whatbird.com and allaboutbirds.org. You can see beautiful photos of Sharp-shinned Hawks, in flight, at the Alan Murphy web site. For other images, do a search on Google or Flickr, and you’ll see many good images.