For the Latest Bird Watching News, Hot Birding Spots, Tips & More, Subscribe to
Our Free Newsletter: The Birder Alert!
Hawk or Falcon?
by Julie Reis
(San Antonio TX)
Sharp-shinned Hawk or Cooper's Hawk?
Q: This lovely bird was spotted sitting on our back fence today (1/3/11) in San Antonio TX at about 4:30 PM. He was hanging out above our feeders where the songbirds usually feed. I haven't been able to fully identify this guy or gal, but think it may be a prairie falcon?
The bird looks to be medium sized, maybe a little larger than a robin with a long tail. I've never seen a bird similar to this at any of our Texas homes so it was surprising to see this fella today. Would love to know what it is.
A: We believe your bird is either a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) or Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), of the Accipiter subfamily, Accipitrinae. We cannot see a lot of detail in the photo, but we can see that the bird lacks the dark moustache or sideburn line that a Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) has coming down from the eye across the face. Also, based on what you say size is, it could not be a Prairie Falcon because they are 17" in size (about the size of a crow) whereas a robin is 9-11". We also would not expect a Prairie Falcon to be perched there in the trees because they prefer open country.
If the bird is slightly larger than a robin, it is most likely a Sharp-shinned Hawk which are 10-14" in size. Cooper's Hawks are more the size of a crow, from 14-20" in size, the females are typically larger than the males which is true of Sharpy's as well. It can be challenging though to tell the difference between a female Sharp-shinned Hawk and a male Cooper's Hawk by size alone. More clues are needed.
It's difficult to see the colors in the photo, but it appears that the breast has brown streaks as opposed to rusty barring. This would indicate a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk.
Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk Up Close
This is a juvenile bird that is starting to get some of the rusty barring across the breast, but still has retained juvenile brown feathers as well.
Aside from size, you can also tell a Sharp-shinned Hawk from a Cooper's Hawk by the tail shape. Sharpy's have square tails whereas Cooper's have rounded tails at the bottom. It is hard to see from the photo since the branch in the background is blocking the view of the tail. If you can remember what shape it looked like, let us know by commenting below. One other way to tell the difference between the two accipiters is a Cooper's Hawk head will somewhat appear to be flattened at the top.
Left photo is juvenile male Sharp-shinned Hawk, right photo is adult male Cooper's Hawk.
Click on photos to enlarge.
If you happen to get another look at the bird, see if you can tell if its tail is rounded or squared, if it has rusty barring, brown streak or a combination of both, and if its head has a more flattened look to it on top. Please add any further comments or questions below.