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Profiles On The Sharp-shinned Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk & Cooper’s Hawk

Be a birding expert! Find out what everything you need to know about the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk.

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Sharp-shinned Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk

Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus): This upperwing or dorsal view of juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk is often all you get with this fast-moving forest-dwelling hawk. Several structural features immediately suggest accipiter, and a quick analysis of these features point to Sharp-shinned Hawk. The accipiter features include slender body, long tail, small head and bill, and large eyes.

If seen in person, you would notice this bird’s small size: 9 to 13 inches long with a 20- to 26-inch wingspan. Males typically are smaller than females, with this bird showing the more compact, physical features of a male. These features include a noticeably small head with a large-eyed look; the wide, stocky wing shape; and a relatively short, squared-off tail.

The most diagnostic structural features pointing to Sharp-shinned Hawk include a very small head and a short neck that protrude only slightly off the body. Cooper’s shows more pronounced head and neck projection off the body that extends noticeably past an imaginary line connecting the wrists (mid-point on the leading edge of the wing) of the two wings.

In a relaxed glide, the leading edge of the wings project forward from the body towards the wrist on Sharp-shinned and are perpendicular, or at a right angle to the body, on Cooper’s. This creates a slight U-shape to the front of the inner wing, seen on this Sharp-shinned, and provides one of the best separating features for Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s. It is reliable only on birds in a soar or relaxed glide.

The tail looks fairly broad on this bird species, but it was fanned to make a turn. The tail has a mostly squared-off appearance, typical of Sharp-shinned but not diagnostic in juvenile accipiters, with a mostly gray tip versus white in Cooper’s. An overall brownish upperpart color is more typical of Sharp-shinned, while Cooper’s shows a buff-colored head and often a warmer upperpart color.

Sharp-shinned Hawk breeds widely from Alaska east to Canada’s Maritime Provinces and in select mountainous regions of the United States. The bird species is seen in all U.S. locations in migration or winter. The winter range includes most U.S. states south to Mexico and the Caribbean. This juvenile Sharp-shinned was photographed in New Jersey in October.

Broad-winged Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk

Juvenile Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus): This photo offers a perfect example of typical buteo shape and structure. This bird’s relaxed glide allows the true wing and tail shape to be seen. You can narrow your choices to hawks in the genus Buteo by noting certain shared body traits.

The body shape of this bird species is stocky with a large, blocky head and a heavy, powerful bill. All buteos share these features. Other buteo traits include uniformly broad wings with a fairly straight leading edge in a glide or soar; short, somewhat squared-off tails; and relatively short to medium-length legs. These features create a distinctive flight profile for most buteos.

This Broad-winged Hawk is our smallest buteo (15 inches long; 34-inch wingspan) and one of the most common. Broad-wing has evenly contoured wings, lacking the bulging secondaries and long primaries shown in other buteos.

The tail shows typical faint, narrow tail bands with a wider dark terminal band. The heavy, dark blobs and teardrop-shaped markings on the underparts show one of several variable underpart patterns on juvenile Broad-wings, with some birds showing only a few sparse dark markings on the upper breast.

Pale secondary flight feathers help in separating this bird from very similar juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk, which has dark barred secondary flight feathers. A blocky head with a no-neck look is a good structural feature for Broad-wing, while Red-shoulder shows a longer, heavier neck as well as head projection off the body. Distinct black-tipped primary feathers are good plumage field marks to note.

Broad-winged Hawk breeds widely across most of the eastern United States and extends across lower Canada almost to British Columbia. Migrant birds occur throughout North America, with San Francisco enjoying a strong movement of Broad-wings in fall. The winter range is mostly Central America, with some birds found near the southern U.S. border. This juvenile Broad-wing Hawk was photographed in New Jersey in October.

Cooper's Hawk
Cooper's Hawk

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii): While accipiters are known for their slender body shape and smallish heads, this large female Cooper’s Hawk (16 to 19 inches long; 31- to 34-inch wingspan) gives an impression of a heavy body and a large head, more typical of buteos. The head shape, however, is not blocky like a buteo but somewhat slender and flat-topped, and the bill appears relatively small compared to Broad-winged Hawk. Accipiters are known for their long tails and legs – obvious on this bird.

While this female Cooper’s Hawk heavy body gives one impression, a combination of very long legs and tail; narrow, flat head; and small bill trump the heavy-bodied look and suggest a large accipiter. A large head and the neck extension off the body immediately rules out Sharp-shinned Hawk, as do thick legs and strong, powerful feet. Sharp-shinned has thinner, pencil-like legs and proportionally smaller toes. The heavily barred flight feathers and streaked underwing coverts here typically appear in all accipiters.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk has a longer, flatter head than Sharp-shinned, with a larger bill. Streaking on the underparts varies and overlaps in juveniles of both species, but Cooper’s typically shows heavier streaking on the upper breast, diffusing to thinner streaks on the lower belly – like this bird. A lack of heavy, dark streaks on the belly and dark spotting on the undertail eliminate juvenile Northern Goshawk, which also shows uneven tail bands, more pronounced white superciliums and a pale Northern Harrierlike cheek patch with dark rear border.

Cooper’s Hawk breeds throughout most of the United States and extreme southern Canada, with only far northern and upper central birds migratory. The winter range encompasses much of the U.S. south to Mexico. This juvenile Cooper’s Hawk was photographed in New Jersey in October.


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Posted: June 6, 2013, 1:30 p.m. PDT

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