• Skip to Content
  • Skip to Main Navigation
  • Skip to Local Navigation
  • Skip to Search
  • Skip to Sitemap
  • Skip to Footer
Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Accipiter striatus ORDER: ACCIPITRIFORMES FAMILY: ACCIPITRIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A tiny hawk that appears in a blur of motion—and often disappears in a flurry of feathers. That’s the Sharp-shinned Hawk, the smallest hawk in North America and a daring, acrobatic flier. These raptors have distinctive proportions: long legs, short wings, and very long tails, which they use for navigating their deep-woods homes at top speed in pursuit of songbirds and mice. They’re easiest to spot in fall on their southward migration, or occasionally at winter feeders.

2014Sponsored Ad
Be a Better Birder Tutorial 4

Keys to identification Help

Hawks
Hawks
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Sharp-shinned Hawks are small, long-tailed hawks with short, rounded wings. They have small heads that in flight do not always project beyond the “wrists” of the wings. The tail tends to be square-tipped and may show a notch at the tip. Females are considerably larger than males.

  • Color Pattern

    Adults are slaty blue-gray above, with narrow, horizontal red-orange bars on the breast. Immature birds are mostly brown, with coarse vertical streaks on white underparts. Adults and young have broad dark bands across their long tails.

  • Behavior

    Sharp-shinned Hawks are agile fliers that speed through dense woods to surprise their prey, typically songbirds. They do not stoop on prey from high overhead. They may also pounce from low perches. When flying across open areas they have a distinctive flap-and-glide flight style.

  • Habitat

    Sharp-shinned Hawks breed in deep forests. During migration, look for them in open habitats or high in the sky, migrating along ridgelines. During the nonbreeding season they hunt small birds and mammals along forest edges and sometimes at backyard bird feeders, causing a wave of high-pitched alarm calls among the gathered songbirds.

Range Map Help

Sharp-shinned Hawk Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Sharp-shinned Hawk

    Adult
    • Very small and delicate hawk
    • Small, rounded head
    • Long tail
    • Dark gray back and reddish-orange barring on breast
    • © Gerry Dewaghe, February 2009
  • Juvenile

    Sharp-shinned Hawk

    Juvenile
    • Small and compact with rounded head
    • Brown back and wings
    • Streaked breast
    • Immature shows glowing yellow eye
    • © Jana Thompson, South Dakota, January 2009
  • Adult

    Sharp-shinned Hawk

    Adult
    • Small head, wide shoulders
    • Dark crown and upperparts
    • Reddish orange barring on breast
    • Adult shows dark red eye
    • © TheWorldThroughMyEyes, Wilmington, Delaware, February 2009
  • Sub-adult

    Sharp-shinned Hawk

    Sub-adult
    • Transitioning from juvenile to adult plumage
    • Slender yellow legs and small, rounded head
    • Underparts barred orange and white
    • Brown head and back
    • © Darin Ziegler, Colorado Springs, Colorado, March 2009
  • Adult

    Sharp-shinned Hawk

    Adult
    • Small head, square-tipped tail
    • "Short-necked" structure
    • Orange and white barring on breast and belly
    • Thin, yellow legs
    • © Seth Reams, Portland, Oregon, November 2008
  • Juvenile in flight

    Sharp-shinned Hawk

    Juvenile in flight
    • Short, rounded wings
    • Long, squared-off tail with gray and white stripes
    • Small head
    • Streaked breast
    • © Lloyd Spitalnik, Cape May, New Jersey, October 2009
  • Juvenile

    Sharp-shinned Hawk

    Juvenile
    • Small, rounded head
    • Long, squared tail
    • Brown streaking on breast
    • Slender yellow legs
    • © John Rowe, Ossipee, New Hampshire, October 2010
  • Adult in flight

    Sharp-shinned Hawk

    Adult in flight
    • Short, rounded wings
    • Long, squared-off tail
    • Head does not project past "shoulders"
    • © Lauren Peeler Brice, Annapolis, Maryland, December 2009
  • Adult with prey

    Sharp-shinned Hawk

    Adult with prey
    • Plucks and scatters feathers as it eats
    • Rounded head with dark red eye
    • Small and compact
    • Dark gray crown and back
    • © Larry Sarris, Mississaugua, Ontario, Canada, December 2009
  • Juvenile in flight

    Sharp-shinned Hawk

    Juvenile in flight
    • Rounded brown wings with dark stripes
    • Gray and white striped tail
    • © Stephen Ramirez, San Marcos, Texas, January 2011

Similar Species

  • Juvenile

    Cooper's Hawk

    Juvenile
    • Head larger, more rectangular than Sharp-shinned
    • More heavy-bodied and muscular
    • Neck more clearly defined
    • Thicker yellow legs, and proportionately larger feet
    • © William Jobes, Pennsylvania, January 2009
  • Juvenile in flight

    Cooper's Hawk

    Juvenile in flight
    • Head larger than Sharp-shinned, projects well beyond "shoulders"
    • Barrel-chested, muscular appearance
    • Tail usually rounded at tip, but can vary in shape
    • © Gerry Dewaghe, October 2008
  • Adult

    Cooper's Hawk

    Adult
    • Dark cap more clearly defined
    • Tail not as squared as in Sharp-shinned
    • Paler nape
    • © Kevin J. McGowan
  • Adult Taiga in flight

    Merlin

    Adult Taiga in flight
    • Wings longer, much more sharply-pointed than Sharp-shinned Hawk
    • © Christopher L. Wood, Cape May, New Jersey, October 2010
  • Adult Taiga

    Merlin

    Adult Taiga
    • Wings long and pointed, tail shorter than Sharp-shinned Hawk
    • Streaking on breast darker and thicker than on Sharp-shinned Hawk
    • Underwings boldly marked with "checkerboard" pattern
    • © William Jobes, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, September 2008
  • Adult

    Merlin

    Adult
    • Similar to juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk, but back and head darker
    • Long wings reach almost to end of tail
    • Black eye
    • Denser streaking on breast and flanks
    • © Glenn Bartley, Washington, August 2009

Similar Species

Cooper's Hawks are notoriously difficult to separate from Sharp-shinned Hawks. Cooper’s Hawks are a larger species, but males and females differ so much in size that this character alone is rarely enough. Remember that Cooper’s Hawks tend to be more common breeders in suburban areas, whereas Sharp-shinned Hawks nest almost exclusively in conifers and heavily wooded areas; you’ll see them in neighborhoods typically only in winter. Cooper’s Hawks have larger heads than Sharp-shinned, and in flight the head usually projects well beyond the leading edge of the wings. Also look for the Cooper’s rounded tail; when folded the outer feathers are usually shorter than the central ones. Adult Cooper’s Hawks have a dark cap and pale back of the neck, whereas Sharp-shinned Hawks have a dark cap and nape. Immature Cooper’s Hawks have neat brown streaks concentrated on the chest, whereas immature Sharp-shinned Hawks have broad, blurry streaks that go well down onto the belly. Cooper’s Hawk also has thicker legs and larger feet—this can be a great clue when looking at perched birds up close. The Merlin is similar in size, but it’s a falcon—it has pointed wings and a shorter tail. Merlins are dark, streaky birds and they behave differently, flying powerfully and usually hunting out in the open.

Backyard Tips

Backyard bird feeders do attract Sharp-shinned Hawks from time to time. Most bird watchers prefer to discourage this behavior, although studies indicate that feeders don’t greatly increase a bird’s chances of being taken by a Sharp-shinned Hawk—the hawks get the great majority of their diet elsewhere. If a hawk starts hunting regularly in your yard, the best thing to do is to take down your feeders for a couple of weeks. The hawk will move on and the songbirds will return when you put your feeders back up. Here’s more about how to cope with predators and pests in your yard.

Find This Bird

Look for these secretive hawks as they move across open areas with their characteristic flap-and-glide flight pattern. You’re most likely to spot Sharp-shinned Hawks during migration, especially fall migration, when they’re the most plentiful raptors seen at hawkwatch sites. Incredibly elusive while nesting, most Sharp-shinned Hawks spend their summers under the canopy of dense forests, occasionally coming into the open to circle in the sky or fly across a field. But they do also visit rural or suburban areas with some tree cover, especially where bird feeders or spilled grain encourage congregation of small birds.

You Might Also Like

Mercury Rising: Story in Living Bird magazine.