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Sharp-Shinned Hawk

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By Steve Berardi (Flickr: Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons By Steve Berardi (Flickr: Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This bird’s the bane of bird-feeders everywhere!

One might think that the backyard bird feeder is the songbird version of utopia: an endless supply of food, plenty of good company, great conversation, and the ideal place to take a date, or maybe find that feathered special someone. Assuming the absence of a house cat, life could not get much better. Wrong! It’s not just songbirds that find a meal at those backyard feeders, but also predators. Think of a watering hole in the Plains of Kilimanjaro, replacing the lions with small hawks. Let me introduce you to the bane of bird feeders everywhere, the Sharp-shinned Hawk. 

I remember just a few weeks back watching the feathered mob enjoying my largess at my own backyard bird feeder when suddenly, poof!... all the little songbirds disappeared. “What’s up with that?” I wondered. I soon found my answer, for circling up above was a beautiful little Sharp-shinned Hawk, or Sharpie as they are otherwise known. He was also visiting my back yard, but not for the bird seed I had dispensed. Rather, he was hunting for the birds that were attracted to that feeder. You see, the prey-predator pyramid is also in force in my neighborhood and at the top of that food chain is the Sharpie, our smallest hawk. 

Sharpies feed almost exclusively on birds, which form over 90 percent of its diet. Most birders will rarely get more than a flash of these quick little hunters, as they twist through the trees in pursuit of their prey. They are especially equipped with long tails and short wings for high-speed maneuvering, as the little birds they hunt do not give up without a flight. I have received many emails and comments from birders with complaints about these disruptive little raptors raiding backyard feeders and making  a general nuisance of themselves (Northern Pygmy Owls are also culprits, but that’s another story). For me, I find them beautiful and I am glad to sacrifice a chickadee or two to have them visit my backyard. Hey, I’ll even open up an all-you-can-eat buffet if those Sharpies will focus on the House Sparrows. 

Sharpies are pretty little things, about the size of a small jay. They are distinctly colored with bluish-gray backs and wing primaries, a matching black hood, and a buff-colored breast with reddish-brown horizontal ribbing. Their outstretched wings will show a dark linear pattern against a white background. And their eyes are downright eerie: solid red orbs with black centers. They truly look unnatural, but natural they are. And the long, stripped tail of alternating grey and black bands is unmistakable. As is true with all raptors, the female is larger—sometimes much larger—than the male.

Sharpies have long, pencil-like legs that do not seem up to the task of being the terror of the lilac bushes. But they are. Indeed, the name of these birds comes from the rough, scale-like skin that covers the legs. 

The above description also fits the next-size-larger Coopers Hawk. The Coopers Hawk is easily mistaken for the Sharpie and vice versa, their apparent difference being only one of size. But there are field marks you can use to differentiate between these two related, but different, species. When soaring or circling above, the silhouette of the Sharpie looks like a flying “T”—their small head is not always obvious. In comparison, the Coopers Hawk’s head can be more readily discerned. Additionally, the end of the tail of the perched Sharpie is blunt, whereas that of the more barrel-chested Coopers is rounded. This might be tough to see without a pair of binoculars, but still important to note. Otherwise, size can be difficult to judge in the field, especially knowing that a large, female Sharpie might match a small male Coopers from head to tail tip. The Coopers will also swap the dark hood for a cap. 

Come on, it’s a bird eat bird world out there, even among your rose bushes and camellias. Danger lurks from the fence rails to the apple trees. And that friendly little Sharpie is not there so you can add a check to your life list, but to invite some unfortunate songbird home for dinner. Just remember that, for all of its beauty, nature plays hardball. Happy birding! 

You can reach Mike at [email protected]

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

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birding, A Bird in Hand, sharp-shinned hawk

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