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Nature Notes: Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Ed Robinson
December 20, 2017
Eirwin Soltesz photo

In an earlier article, I described the lovely Cooper’s hawk. Here we will learn more about the smallest member of the same family, the sharp-shinned hawk. These birds, along with the sparrow hawk and goshawk, are members of the genus Accipiter from the Latin word accipere, meaning “to grasp.” The Accipiters are characterized by their relatively short, rounded wings and a long tail for maneuvering in flight. They also have long legs, hooked bills and long, sharp talons to grip and kill prey.

As you will note in the photo, the sharp-shinned hawk is a small but striking bird. A mature male will reach a length of 12 inches and a wing span less than 24 inches, while the females run roughly one third larger. The male weighs only three to four ounces while the female may reach seven ounces with ready supplies of food. The tail shows bands of black or blue and light gray, with a slight notch in the middle (sometimes tipped in white). The upper wings are again dark gray, with light bands of white and gray underneath. Reddish orange bands can be seen on the breast. The small head, on a very short neck, is blueish gray on top and streaked with gray, tan and white on the sides and bottom. The sharp bill is black, and the long, skinny legs are yellow with black talons.

This small, secretive hawk is comfortable in heavier cover than some of the bigger hawks, and it may live in a wide range of forest, woodland and brushy habitats, both coniferous and deciduous. Their breeding range extends across the lower half of Canada and the entire US. Birds from northern zones migrate in the autumn to the southern US, Mexico and Central America. Habitat is key to the sharp-shinned hawk’s hunting method, since they tend to surprise their prey by flying swiftly through dense habitat.

Their primary foods are smaller birds, from sparrows to warblers and wrens, and even to quail or ruffed grouse. Females tend to take larger prey, such as robins, so there is limited competition with males for food. If you maintain a backyard feeder for songbirds, you can expect the sharp-shinned hawk to take full advantage of the opportunity to pick off the unwary in a burst of feathers. These hawks have also been observed eating small rodents, amphibians, snakes and insects.

Breeding occurs in the spring, with the male showing off his flying skills to a prospective mate. The pair will combine efforts to build their nest of sticks and grass in dense cover, often selecting a sizable spruce or fir tree, so as to avoid becoming prey for larger raptors. The female generally lays four to five bluish-white eggs with brown tinges, each measuring 1 by 1.5 inches. The eggs hatch after a month of incubation, with the male hanging around to defend the territory around the nest and to feed his mate. The male may sit on the nest for short periods while the female feeds. The chicks remain on or near the nest for four to six weeks before taking flight, and are dependent upon their parents for food for approximately one more month before becoming independent.

While the population of the sharp-shinned hawk suffered during the years of overuse of the pesticide DDT, their numbers have rebounded. However, they may still be in a long-term decline due to falling song bird numbers. In the annual hawk watches done at various points around the US, the sharp-shinned figures prominently in the head counts logged by dedicated birders. As long as song bird populations remain reasonably stable, and homeowners maintain backyard feeders, the beautiful sharp-shinned hawk should retain its place in the natural world around us.

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