One of the most common backyard hawks, the sharp-shinned hawk is an agile predator that feeds on small birds such as finches and sparrows. This member of the Accipitridae family can be confusing, however, and birders need to look carefully to feel confident about identifying this raptor. Fortunately, this fact sheet has everything you need to better understand the sharp-shinned hawk.
- Scientific Name: Accipiter striatus
- Common Name: Sharp-Shinned Hawk, Sharpie
- Lifespan: 2-4 years
- Size: 9-13 inches
- Weight: 3-7 ounces
- Wingspan: 23 inches
- Conservation Status: Least concern
Sharp-Shinned Hawk Identification
This bird's predatory structure with its short, curved bill marked with a yellow cere, its large talons, and its overall shape clearly identify it as a raptor, but telling which raptor can be a challenge. Genders are similar though females tend to be significantly larger than males. The head and back are medium to dark gray, and the white breast is thickly streaked with rusty red or brown streaks. The long tail has a square tip, dark gray horizontal stripes, and a thin white tip, though the white tip can wear off over time. The legs are bright yellow and very thin, with a distinctive sharp ridge that gives these birds their name. Adult birds have red eyes while juveniles have yellow eyes. Juvenile sharp-shinned hawks also have less distinct barring on the breast and may show a faint white eyebrow streak. Their breast coloration is also more brownish rather than the red hue of adults.
Hawks rely partially on stealth to capture their prey and sounds are rare. Sharp-shinned hawks will call a harsh “kee-kee-kee” or “kik-kik-kik” alarm when a nest is threatened.
Sharp-Shinned Hawk vs. Cooper's Hawk
These raptors are easily confused with the very similar Cooper's hawk, and it can be challenging to tell these two accipiters apart. Sharp-shinned hawks are notably smaller, though small male Cooper's hawks can be the same size as large female sharp-shinned hawks. Sharpies have narrow hips and proportionally larger heads than their Cooper's cousins, and sharp-shinned hawks also have thinner legs. The square corners on a sharp-shinned hawk's tail are a good clue to their identification since Cooper's hawks have notably rounded tails, and Cooper's hawks also have a distinct capped appearance with a paler nape contrasting with their head, whereas sharp-shinned hawks are more evenly colored. Because sharpies are smaller, they also consume smaller prey than Cooper's hawks.
Sharp-Shinned Hawk Habitat and Distribution
Sharp-shinned hawks are common in woodland areas and open lowlands throughout the United States, southern and western Canada, Mexico, and Central America. These birds are readily seen in suburban areas where there are some trees present, and they can be found in urban and suburban parks.
Northern sharp-shinned hawk populations will migrate to the south for winter, but birds in the western mountains of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, southern Idaho, northern California, Washington, and Oregon may be present year-round.
Like all birds of prey, sharp-shinned hawks will soar over their territory to locate prey. They are likely to feed on the ground after capturing a bird, mouse, or other small mammal and may remain on the ground for several minutes after feeding. They will perch in areas with good visibility to locate feeding grounds, and often make short, close flights over bushes or dense brush to startle small birds into flight to be easier to catch.
The sharp-shinned hawk’s long tail and rounded wings give them excellent maneuverability through dense brush and trees in pursuit of prey.
Diet and Feeding
These are carnivorous birds that eat small prey, including mice and other small mammals, as well as small birds such as sparrows and finches. They will also attack nestling and other young birds before they grow too large for the hawks to successfully capture, and large insects may also make up part of their diet. After feeding, sharp-shinned hawks must rest to digest their prey, and they will regurgitate pellets of indigestible parts such as bones, fur, and feathers.
Female sharp-shinned hawks build a platform nest and raise one brood of 3-5 altricial young per year. The male partner may help gather twigs for nesting material, but the female does most of the nest construction. Nests are typically positioned 10-60 feet above the ground in a sturdy tree, and the same nests may be reused or rebuilt each year.
Eggs and Young
The oval-shaped eggs of a sharp-shinned hawk are whitish or pale blue and are marked with dark spots. Eggs must be incubated for 30-35 days, and the female parent does the majority of the incubation. Fledgling birds remain in the nest for another 25-27 days, though young males typically leave the nest before their sisters. Both male and female parents will feed and rear the nestlings.
Sharp-Shinned Hawk Conservation
These raptors are not considered threatened or endangered, but they are at risk from various threats that affect all raptors. Improper pesticide use, particularly insecticides and rodenticides that poison their prey, can also contaminate and even kill sharp-shinned hawks. Because these raptors chase small birds and are common in suburban areas, they are also vulnerable to window strikes.
Tips for Backyard Birders
Because sharp-shinned hawks feed on smaller birds, they are attracted to yards and gardens where sparrows, doves, and other small birds feed. If feeding areas are visible from the air, hawks are more likely to be frequent visitors. Many backyard birders prefer to take steps to protect backyard birds from hawks rather than allow them to feed easily. Adding a brush pile to the landscape is an easy way to provide a safe retreat for smaller birds without harming hawks.
How to Find This Bird
Because raptors are relatively solitary, they can be difficult to find. Visiting an urban park nature center or wildlife preserve with a dedicated feeding area may lead to sharp-shinned hawk sightings as the birds learn about easy meals at feeding stations. Otherwise, birders should watch for sharp-shinned hawks at forest edges or visiting their own backyard feeders.
Explore More Species in This Family
The Accipitridae bird family is a large collection of raptors with more than 240 species of hawks, buzzards, eagles, kites, and harriers. Familiar relatives of the sharp-shinned hawk include: