Yesterday I was listening to the loud, discordant chatter of the newly arrived yellow-headed blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) when suddenly there was total silence. Sure enough, when I looked there was not a blackbird to be seen and sitting in place of the yellow-heads was a sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus). I could tell that this invader was very wary and nervous. I was only able to quickly snap a few pictures from behind before it flew off.
The smallest of the North American hawks, the sharp-shinned hawk can be found in deep woods and forests throughout most of the United States. “Sharpies” also frequent urban bird feeding stations, particularly those with nearby trees, where songbirds congregate. They prefer conifers but will also inhabit mixed or other hardwood forests.
Sharp-shinned hawks are extremely agile as they fly and navigate at high speeds through the trees after their favorite prey, small songbirds. “Pursuit hunters”, sharp-shinned hawks surprise their victim as they suddenly attack from positions of cover. Their long legs, short wings, long tail and small head make them well adapted to rapid maneuvering. Sharpies use their long toes and talons to impale and hold their prey. Unlike some other raptors (especially owls) that will swallow feathers, the sharpie plucks the feathers from its victim before eating it. In addition to smaller songbirds, sharpies will eat mice, voles and some insects, such as grasshoppers.
Sharp-shinned hawks are year-round residents in our area and breed here. The parents feed their chicks the nestlings and fledglings of other small birds. It is interesting that before giving food to their chicks, the parents will bite off and eat the head. Parents feed their young for several weeks after they fledge. Adults will drop the food into the nest for the young hawks to eat when they first fledge. Later they transfer the food to the youngster in flight, most likely to train the fledgling how to pursue and catch moving prey.
This sharp-shinned hawk, which did not catch a yellow-headed blackbird, is a juvenile as indicated by the brown feathers on the back with white spots on the coverts. The eye is yellow. Adults have a red eye and blue-gray back, crown and nape without any white on the back. Females are larger than males.
Sharpies and Cooper’s hawks (Accipiter cooperi) look almost exactly alike in field and are very difficult to identify. This is another of those situations where body size (Cooper’s is larger, but never mind that a large sharp-shinned female and small Cooper’s male are about the same size), head shape (sharp-shinned is flatter) and head color (Cooper’s has a cap not a hood – sure!) are important field markings. Honestly, unless I have the two species sitting next to each other, those features are almost impossible to distinguish. However there is one trait that, although sometimes subtle, can be used to separate the Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks. Tune in tomorrow. . .