Identifying Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks

One of the very common backyard identification challenges is trying to decide whether you're seeing Cooper's or Sharp-shinned Hawks.

Identifying your 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 determine which species it is. In this post, I’ll talk about two of the most common (and similar) backyard hawks, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned. One point to note is that although in general Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller than Cooper’s, this can be very hard to use as an identification tool. Males are significantly smaller than females in both species making it very hard to separate the large female Sharp-shinned from the small male Cooper’s.

Cooper’s Hawk

As you can see on this eBird map, Cooper’s Hawk occurs throughout the continental United States. It’s a very common sight in many backyards and has adapted very nicely to hunting it’s prey at bird feeders. In general, if you have bird feeders, you’ve probably had this species in your yard.

Identifying Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks©Eric Ripma
©Eric Ripma Notice how far a Cooper’s Hawk’s head projects beyond it’s wings. They look like a cross when flying. Also note the long rounded tail.
Identifying Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks©Rob Ripma
©Rob Ripma This photo shows the obvious pale nape that contrasts greatly with the dark gray crown.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk is also a wide ranging species and as you can see on eBird, occurs farther north than Cooper’s Hawk. This species is more commonly seen during migration or hunting at bird feeders during the winter months as they do not tend to breed in suburban areas like Cooper’s Hawk does.

Identifying Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks©Eric Ripma
©Eric Ripma One the Sharp-shinned Hawk, notice how the head doesn’t project much beyond the leading edge of the wing. This makes them look like a T in flight. In this photo you can also see the characteristic short squared-off tail.
Identifying Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks©Eric Ripma
©Eric Ripma Compared to the Cooper’s Hawk, notice how dark the nape is on a Sharp-shinned Hawk. This leads to a less “capped” appearance.

Have you seen either of these species in your yard?

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