A few days ago, in the late afternoon sunlight, I noticed a bird alight on a branch outside my second-story home office window. I was preparing for an online class, moved up from the usual 7 p.m. start time by a Maundy Thursday church service. A glance told me this might be something unusual; something about the coloration and the posture took it out of the realm of an ordinary songbird.
I grabbed the binoculars that always lie at hand, and checked it out. Sure enough, the posture was upright, the beak was hooked, the breast feathers were in distinct vertical barring. This was a hawk! The amazing thing about it, though, was that it was barely bigger than a Blue Jay, that familiar perky, pesky, raucous songbird cousin of crows. I checked other identifying marks, too. The feathers on the upper back seemed greyish, and a few had white spots. The rest of the back was more brown. The beak was black, the eye yellow, legs yellow, and tail obstructed from view by the shape of the branches. The bird sat there for several minutes, while I googled bird ID sites. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has the best one by far, a fact I proclaim with an alumnus’ pride.
And what I found was not simple. There are two hawks that look like this; the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk. The Sharp-shinned is the smallest hawk in North America, while the Cooper’s is just enough larger to be described as “medium.” To put this in perspective, adult Sharp-shinneds are 9 ½ to 13 ½ inches long, have wingspans of 17 to 22 inches, and weigh all of 3 to 8 oz. Coopers range from 14 ½ to 15 inches (male) / 16 ½ to 17 inches (female), span 24-35 inches (m) / 30 to 35 inches (f), and weigh 8 to 14 ½ oz (m) / 11 ½ to 24 oz (f). So a large Sharp-shinned is nearly the size of a small Cooper’s.
Both have red eyes and breasts that are horizontally barred as adults, and both have yellow eyes and vertical bars as immatures (immatures can also be recognized by their inclination to be socially awkward, act silly, and wear makeup badly). Both species feature songbirds as a major dietary element, so both hang around bird feeders. (And we thought cats were the primary danger at feeders!) Both can fly at lightning speed through dense branch coverage, and tend to do so to surprise their victims. The Cooper’s Hawk is more common, but the Sharp-shinned is present during migration season.
The Cornell site even has a whole section with excellent photographic evidence comparing and contrasting the two. The Cooper’s has a longer neck and a longer tail; that’s why I regret the obstructed view of the tail I had. I did not observe the bird in open flight either; after a few minutes he or she just took off on a straight line, and was out of sight in a second.
The evidence that convinced me that I saw an immature Sharp-shinned is its truly diminutive size, its “no-neck” look, and the heaviness of its barring, which is more persistent on the Sharp-shinned. I’m going to keep my eyes open, though. Cooper’s Hawks are apparently abundant in suburban areas of this region, and are simply not noticed as often as more brightly colored or flamboyant birds. Seeing one would give me a chance to verify by comparison and contrast that it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk I saw this time. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016