ID Challenge: Cooper’s Hawk vs Sharp Shinned Hawk

A common backyard birding challenge is learning how to ID a Cooper's hawk vs a sharp-shinned hawk. Look closely at these birds of prey.

Cooper’s Hawk vs Sharp Shinned Hawk: How to Tell the Difference

Cooper's hawkCourtesy Charlene Denise Maples
Juvenile Cooper’s hawk

Identifying backyard hawks can be quite the challenge. So many times they are just a blur of a bird quickly making a pass through your feeding station in pursuit of a meal. If you do happen to get a decent look at the hawk, or if it decides to perch in the open long enough for you to study it, you can likely identify the species. Here are some key features to look for when trying to tell the difference between a cooper’s hawk vs a sharp shinned hawk.

The Cooper’s hawk is a member of the accipiter group. It has relatively short wings—reaching only to the base of the tail—and a long tail that is broadly rounded at the tip. The most similar bird would be the sharp-shinned hawk, but that’s a smaller species with a more square-tipped tail and a smaller head. The sharpie also has pencil-thin legs, not like the strong, robust legs on the Cooper’s.

cooper's hawk vs sharp shinned hawkCourtesy Tenna Stafford
Juvenile sharp shinned hawk

Adults Cooper’s hawks are blue-gray above and pale reddish on the chest, but for about their first year of life, the young birds are brown, with dark stripes on a white chest. (Young sharp-shinned hawks are very similar to young Cooper’s, but their dark stripes below tend to be wider, more blurry and more reddish brown.) Cooper’s hawks are curious, alert birds that often visit cities and towns, where they investigate yards and perch close to houses. Male Cooper’s hawks are significantly smaller than their female mates.

The sharp-shinned hawk is amazingly strong for its size. Although the sharp shinned isn’t much bigger than a blue jay or mourning dove, it’s a powerful little predator, pursuing prey in rapid bursts of flight. Recognizable field marks include a small but deeply hooked bill, and black bands across a gray square-tipped tail.

Sharp Shinned Hawk

Cooper's Hawk vs Sharp-Shinned Hawk IDaniel Haas / 500px/Getty Images

Head Size

Smaller, more rounded head that barely sticks out when in flight.

Head Color

Gray beginning on top of the head and continuing down through the neck feathers.

Legs

Long and very thin.

Tail

Tail is more square and uniform.

Range

Sharp shinned hawks occur farther north vs Cooper’s hawks. They stay year-round in parts of the Northwest and the Northeast, and are seen in most of the U.S. during the nonbreeding season. This species is more commonly seen during migration or hunting at bird feeders during the winter months. They prefer dense cover and are less likely to perch in the open.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper's Hawk vs sharp shinned hawkMartinDollenkamp/Getty Images

Head Size

Proportional head that’s easy to see in flight.

Head Color

Dark cap with lighter coloring on the neck.

Legs

Thicker with a shorter appearance.

Tail

The tail is long and slender. Tail feathers create a rounded look, with middle ones longer than the outer ones.

Range

Cooper’s hawks occur throughout the continental United States during most of the year. They are a very common sight in many backyards and have adapted very nicely to hunting for prey at bird feeders. In general, if you have bird feeders, you’ve probably had this species in your yard.

Next, learn how to tell the difference between bald eagles and golden eagles.

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Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard.