Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk?

Accipiter hawk relaxing on the neighbor's fence

Accipiter hawk relaxing on the neighbor's fence

This morning, I noticed this crafty devil sitting on the neighbor’s fence.  He seemed pretty relaxed what with his feathers all fluffed out against the cold, and standing on just one foot. I watched for a few moments and then ran for my camera and binoculars. Even though I was in the house, I’d swear he heard the camera because he put his foot down and looked right at me when I started shooting.

Not wanting to risk being late for work, I didn’t study him for long through the binoculars, trying instead to get pictures, which turned out a bit fuzzy, as the light was low and my lens isn’t fast, but I thought they might be passable enough to figure out an ID.

Cooper's or Sharp-shinned Hawk on the neighbor's fence

Cooper's or Sharp-shinned Hawk on the neighbor's fence

I’m pretty certain he is one of the 2 accipiter species of hawks that can be found around here this time of year, but the question is: which one?

The Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk look nearly identical, though the Cooper’s is slightly larger. The Sharp-shinned are roughly jay-sized while the Cooper’s are closer to crow-sized. The hitch there is that the females are larger than the males so a large female Sharp-shinned and a small male Cooper’s could be the same size.

Fortunately, I had the neighbor’s squirrel feeder to compare him to. I’ve never seen a crow near it, but I do see lots of Blue Jays hanging around there, and this hawk looked a bit larger compared to it than the jays.

Project FeederWatch has a good page about distinguishing between these two as does the Great Backyard Bird Count.

The Project FeederWatch site had this useful bit of info:

If you can see the back of the hawk, and it is an adult, then the color of the nape is a reliable field mark. Cooper’s Hawks have a pale nape with a clear contrast to a dark cap. Juveniles of both species can show a pale nape, however.

The bird in question had the decency to turn his head and in these 2 shots. It does appear that the nape is paler than the cap, which suggests Cooper’s Hawk.

Acciptiter 2

Accipiter 4

And, so, the question of the day: Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned? I’m leaning towards Cooper’s. Any of my birding friends out there want to weigh in? I’d love to know for sure.

If I’m way off, you can tell me that too.


  1. I’m not an ornithologist but as a writer I love the idea of a hawk being sharp-shinned. Great photo.

  2. Hi James,

    All good reasoning and good research, but I think you have a Sharp-shinned Hawk there. Cooper’s Hawks look proportionally bigger-headed than Sharp-shinned Hawks, with a relatively larger bill. Sharp-shinned hawks have a small-headed, big-eyed look, with a smaller-looking bill. That’s what I think this bird looks like.

    The nape on this bird is paler than the cap, but not as much paler as a Cooper’s Hawk’s nape. I did a quick google search and found this example of an adult Cooper’s Hawk showing the much paler nape. Also notice how much larger the head and bill look relative to its body.

    These differences can be difficult to see, and experience is the best way to learn. Seeing either bird perched in adult plumage is always a treat for me. I usually only get distant looks at them soaring, or brief looks at them flying low and fast. Great pictures!


  3. I’m afraid I can’t offer any advice, James, only sympathy – I can’t ID these birds worth a darn. I’d say you’re on the money with it being either Cooper’s or Sharpie (as opposed to some other raptor altogether), but your guess is as good as mine. I saw one on my property this weekend, but it moved around a lot and I never got a good bead on it with the binoculars. I actually heard it calling, which I thought would help me with the ID, but when I listened to their calls on the Cornell site, there was no match, so I came away empty-handed. BTW, if you ever see one of these in your yard during PFW, but can’t positively ID it, the Cornell folks have been kind enough to include an “Accipter sp.” to the list of possibilities for those of us not skilled enough to differentiate between the two, but are sure enough that it’s one or the other. (You’ll probably have to manually add it to your checklist – at least that’s what I had to do.)

  4. Mikael, Thanks for your input and the link (which is why your comment went to moderation) to that great shot of the Cooper’s. Looking at the picture and considering your expertise, I suspect you’re right. The smaller head and size did have me leaning towards Sharp-shinned at first (he seemed about half-way b/n jay and crow size) but I talked myself out of that when I saw the nape. Maybe I should have stayed with that lean. Thanks much.

    Heather, I’ve seen the Accipiter sp. classification, which I would have used if he had shown up on my count day.

    I’d like to see him again for a better picture, but for the sake of my feeder birds, I hope the Blue Jays and Mockingbird escort him to the green belt.

    Gordon, The writer in me hopes he’s a Sharp-shinned.

  5. I have a hard time distinguishing these, too. And get both in my yard. I’d go with Sharpie due to: set of eyes, body shape. His fluff against the cold doesn’t help us too much, does it? Nor the hidden tail bottom. But that’s where I’d go.

    I love About Birds and their comparisons for tough to ID birds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


Comments will be sent to the moderation queue.

© 2017 Coyote Mercury

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: