Living Bird Magazine
Sharp-shinned HawkAccipiter striatus
- ORDER: Accipitriformes
- FAMILY: Accipitridae
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 Canada and the United States 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.More ID Info
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.
- Gavilán Pecho Canela (Spanish)
- Épervier brun (French)
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.
- Cool Facts
- Sharp-shinned Hawk numbers declined during the DDT pesticide years (mid-1940s to 1972), but rebounded after DDT was banned.
- Sharp-shinned Hawks migrate south out of Canada in the fall and are observed at hawk watches in very large numbers. The hawks follow similar landscape features and often are concentrated in certain areas. More than 11,000 Sharp-shinned Hawks were seen on one October day at Cape May Point, New Jersey.
- Female Sharp-shinned Hawks are about a third bigger and heavier than males. This is a typical pattern for many hawks and owls, but otherwise rare in the bird world.
- The size difference between the sexes in Sharp-shinned Hawks influences the size of prey they can catch. Nestlings feed first on small prey caught mainly by their father, switching as they grow to the larger prey that their mother can bring. Before delivering prey to their mates or young, male Sharp-shinned Hawks typically remove and eat the head.
- Adult Sharp-shinned Hawks continue to feed their offspring for several weeks after the youngsters have fledged. At first, they drop dead prey into the nest for the young to consume, but, as the fledglings gain skill, the parents switch to passing prey to the young hawks in flight. The parent approaches and calls, and the fledgling rises to grab prey out of its parent’s claws.
- Rather like a cat’s claws, Sharp-shinned Hawks use their long toes and talons to impale and hold moving prey. They’ve even been known to reach into wire-mesh bird traps to grab prey with their toes.
- Sharp-shinned Hawks carry their prey to a stump or low branch to pluck it before eating. Swallowing feathers is not normal for them, as it is for owls.
- The oldest recorded Sharp-shinned Hawk was a male, and at least 12 year, 2 months old when he was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Minnesota in 2009. He had been banded in the same state in 1999.