Sharp-shinned Hawk: Life In The Fast Lane

Immature sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus)

The wild hawk stood with the down on his beak and stared with his foot on the prey.Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) British poet.

I saw the songbirds scatter.  I knew what it meant.  Sure enough, there on the fence was a gorgeous sharp-shinned hawk.  The sharpie, an immature, made her debut several weeks ago as the last maple leaves fell from the branches.  And just as before, she had struck out again.  With some wing and leg stretching, she regained her composure and began preening.  She fluffed her feathers, smoothing out the ruffles.  She wagged her tail until it folded just right.  She combed her headdress with sharp black hooks on the tips of long yellow toes.  For ten minutes she preened until every feather was neatly in place.

She was a stunning sight with a dark brown head and back, and snow white breast awash with brown vertical streaks.  Her piercing eyes, big and bright, and slender long legs and toes, matched the lemon-yellow cere on her beak—a waxy flesh that signals sexual quality.  As an adult, she will flaunt a grayish-blue head, back, wings and tail, and those vertical brown streaks on her white breast will become white horizontal bars on a reddish-orange breast.

The sharp-shinned hawk is the smallest hawk in the United States and Canada; not to be confused with the American kestrel, which is not a hawk at all, but North America’s smallest falcon.  Yet, for the sharpie, being the smallest hawk doesn’t make things easier because sharpies have a lookalike that being the larger Cooper’s hawk.  Telling them apart isn’t always easy especially when only catching a glimpse of them in pursuit flight.  To sort out similarities, they can be gauged by size comparison.  The sharp-shinned hawk is between robin and crow-sized, while the Cooper’s hawk is about the size of a crow.  Males of both are a little smaller.

The best way to tell them apart is by their flight behavior.  Both hawks live their lives in the fast lane and rely on three key elements—surprise, agility, and speed yet, their flight is as different as night and day.  The sharpies pursuit flight is acrobatic, and very fluttery; in casual flight there is more flapping than gliding.  The Cooper’s pursuit flight is powerful with few wing-beats (no fluttering); in casual flight, there is more gliding than flapping.  

Watchful – Immature sharp-shinned hawk
The acrobat – Immature sharp-shinned hawk
Immature sharp-shinned hawk in a hemlock tree

With the sharpie still on duty, the songbirds kept hidden, and the woods remained silent. She flew from the fence to a cedar tree where she did more wing and leg repetitions and eyed her surroundings.   Then, giving a quick tail wag, she burst into flight to hunt elsewhere.  The songbirds returned an hour later, and resumed their cheerful antics as if nothing ever happened.  

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All About Birds:  Sharp-shinned hawk

All About Birds:  Cooper’s hawk