Bird Feeder Terror Twins

Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks Look Almost Exactly Alike and Share Similar Habits

Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks Look Almost Exactly Alike and Share Similar Habits

If the colder weather thwarts you from getting out and seeing birds, then look no further than your backyard or bird patch to see some fantastic bird species, including birds of prey like Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks.

This weekend while working at the intoBirds’ office in Rosendale, N.Y. we were excited to have visits from two stunning accipiters over a two-hour period.

(Accipiters are medium-sized forest-inhabiting hawks adapted for fast flight in wooded areas).

The most common accipiters near us include Sharp-shinned Hawks (Accipiter striatus) and  Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii).

Birds of Prey Flock to Bird Feeders

The draw for the hawks was our bird feeders for backyard songbirds and woodpeckers.

Big Blue, our resident backyard Blue Jay does a great job warning our flock that a predator is near.

Blue Jays sound the alarm to warn other birds about the appearance of a predator
Blue Jays sound the alarm to warn other birds about the appearance of a predator

We always have such a flurry of activity, and when we catch a glimpse of empty feeders and no birds and squirrels in sight, then we know a hawk is nearby.

Once we heard Big Blue’s warning call and saw all our birds retreat simultaneously from our feeders, we knew a predator stopped by for a visit.

Bird of Prey Drops By

We ran outside with our cameras and took a few photos of what we thought was a beautiful Cooper’s Hawk perched up high in a tree scouting for the Tufted Titmouse that narrowly evaded the hawk’s quest to become its next meal.

Sharp-shinned Hawk was on the prowl for its next meal
Sharp-shinned Hawk was on the prowl for its next meal

The hawk was dark grey in coloring that continued down the back of its neck (nape).

The bird had magnificent orange eyes, but had a small rounded head and body and looked more compact in size than a Cooper’s Hawk.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are small hawks, with males being the smallest hawks in the U.S. and Canada
Sharp-shinned Hawks are small hawks, with males being the smallest hawks in the U.S. and Canada

After reviewing our photos, the hawk’s characteristics led us to believe the bird we saw was a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus).

Second Visit from an Accipiter

Just an hour later while we were photographing a male Downy Woodpecker on our feeder, all our birds flew off in a frenzy.

But the brave Downy was glued to the feeder and would not move.

Male Downy Woodpecker remains still as the hawk scouts for prey
Male Downy Woodpecker remains still as the hawk scouts for prey

We knew another predator was close by and waited silently by the window, so we didn’t scare the Downy and cause it to fly off into the hawk’s line of fire.

After a few minutes of using the feeder as it camouflage, the Downy finally flew away safely.

But the hawk landed in its place on top of the feeder.

Hawk lands on bird feeder looking for songbirds
Hawk lands on bird feeder looking for songbirds

This hawk was dark grey in coloring, but the coloration didn’t continue down it nape.

The bird had a block-shaped head, was larger in body size with glowing yellow eyes.

The hawk remained on top of the feeders and scouted its surroundings before flying off without finding a meal.

Cooper's Hawk looks for its next meal
Cooper’s Hawk looks for its next meal

We were confident the second hawk was a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii).

It was a thrill seeing two beautiful accipiters in one day in our backyard.

Identifying Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks

Both accipiters are easily confused because they look exactly alike and have similar habits.

It’s common for birders, and even expert birders to be shaking their heads about the exact species after a sighting.

Many resort to writing “Cooper’s/Sharp-shinned Hawk” down in their field notebooks after encountering either species.

Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks

 are easily confused because they look exactly alike and have similar habits
Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks

 are easily confused because they look exactly alike and have similar habits

We consulted our Audubon, Peterson, and Sibley guides, and the Merlin Bird app.

Then conferred with one of our favorite Wildlife Rehabilitators and birds of prey expert, Betsy Peyreigne of Christine’s Critters in Weston, Conn. to verify our suspicions.

It appears we were correct and had both a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Cooper’s Hawk at our feeders.

Differences Between Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks

One of the most easily noticed differences between the two birds is that the Sharp-shinned Hawk’s tail is squared off when resting.

The hawk’s outer feathers are slightly longer, have a small cleft in the middle with a thin white tip.

A Cooper’s Hawk’s tail is rounded at rest, with a larger white tip.

Cooper's Hawk stalking birds at the bird feeder
Cooper’s Hawk stalking birds at the bird feeder

Another difference between the Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk is the extension of the coloration down the back of the neck.

The continuation of coloration is indicative of a Sharp-shinned Hawk.



The continuation of color down the nape of the neck is indicative of a Sharp-shinned Hawk
The continuation of color down the nape of the neck is indicative of a Sharp-shinned Hawk

A Cooper’s Hawk has more of a “cap.”

The Cooper’s Hawk we identified has dark grey coloration on the top of its head interrupted by lighter feathers on the back of the neck.

This bird looks like it has a cap of grey.

A Cooper’s Hawk has a “cap"
A Cooper’s Hawk has a “cap”

One way to remember this difference is that “a Coop has a cap.”

It was a thrill for us to see these beautiful birds of prey in our backyard.

Find Your Bird Patch

Many of you have amazing bird species close by and probably don’t even know it.

And if you don’t have a backyard, then consider adopting your own bird patch.

You'll be surprised by the amazing bird species you have in your backyard or bird patch
You’ll be surprised by the amazing bird species you have in your backyard or bird patch

A bird patch is a small area that you cover regularly.

Or where you like to go for tracking your bird lists for Cornell’s eBird or Project FeederWatch.

It can be your local park, neighborhood walk, favorite lake or sewage plant, or refuge wildlife drive.

So do your part as a citizen scientist in your backyard or your favorite bird patch and get out and see birds.

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