How to Identify Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks

A common backyard birding challenge is learning how to tell Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks apart. Look closely to identify these birds of prey.

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:

Sharp-Shinned Hawk In TreeDaniel Haas / 500px/Getty ImagesSharp-Shinned Hawk

Head Size

Smaller 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 than 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.

Learn the best hawk watching tips and hotspots during raptor migration.

Cooper's HawkMartinDollenkamp/Getty Images

Cooper’s Hawk

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

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.

Rob Ripma
Rob Ripma, a lifelong Indiana resident, has traveled and birded extensively throughout the Americas.