It’s Hawk Migration Season: Here’s a Beautiful Hawk with a Tricky ID

it was the tail that gave the hawk away

The other day I was zooming along Old House Lane on my golf cart, and I caught this unusual silhouette in the pine tree overlooking the impoundment.  Whirling around for a second look, I spied a juvenile hawk. The stripes on the tail pointed to either a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharpshinned Hawk.

Both Cooper’s Hawks and Sharpshinned Hawks prey on songbirds, and have been known to hang around bird feeders regularly.

I snapped a bunch of photos for later identification– I can usually tell them apart if they are flying– in my experience, Sharpshinned hawks tend to careen wildly, flapping quickly, while Cooper’s are more focused with fewer flaps.  The Sharpshinned is generally smaller than a Cooper’s, but the male Cooper’s and the female Sharpshinned are about the same size.

note the rounded feathers on the tail

Still unsure, I sent the pictures to our friend Cathy Miller, a birding volunteer on the island and (the one who shot these great photos of dolphins strand-feeding).  Cathy and Carl often volunteer to count Hawks during migration season.  They head to Caesar’s Head state park each fall.  She says,

Carl and I are headed to Caesars Head to participate in the Hawk Watch.  We hope this weekend will be a peak time for the Broad-wings!  Yesterday they got 1114!  Here’s a video from a couple of years ago on the count and the website which gives the daily count numbers.

She also sent me this fabulous site from Project Feederwatch, which has wonderful details on sorting out these two similar accipiters.  Based on the site (and Cathy’s help), I am pretty sure that this is a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk, probably male due to the size.  The neck is fairly tall, the tail feathers are rounded, the streaks on the chest  fade to white at the lower belly.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk

Interestingly, Project Feederwatch states that fewer of these Hawks seem to be migrating each year,

FeederWatch data shows that accipiters, especially Cooper’s Hawks, are becoming more common around feeder areas. Other researchers have found that fewer Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks are migrating based on lower counts at various hawk watches. It appears that fewer of these hawks are migrating, which could be related to climate change or because they have learned that they can survive year round if they find a good feeder area to patrol. See trend graphs for the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk, which show the changes reported by FeederWatchers over time. If you have not participated in Project FeederWatch, join today and report the birds that visit your feeders in winter.

Additional info (July 2016). I came across some notes from a raptor class I took, and here are some more ways to tell:
On the Cooper’s Hawk, the leading edge of the wing is straighter, whereas it’s curved on the sharpshin, with the wing hunching forward more.
The Cooper’s has more of a crested head, and relatively longer tail. The short wings let them zip through the woods. The Sharpshin

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Christie

    Wow, Jude these pix are spectacular! He is gorgeous!!!

  2. dershie mcdevitt

    amazing photos and very helpful info. thanks

  3. Brucie Harry

    We have one of those in the Chlt yard, and I finally got t a photoof him and sent it to Mary Pringle who said it was a Cooper’s. You’d think it’d be easy to identify with those distinctive bands on his tail. What lens were using to get such a great shot?

  4. Frieda Worrall

    Judy, I vote for an immature Cooper’s hawk. I have several that feed at my feeders most days here in Tucson. The photos are really, really good.

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