STATUS: Breeder. Common in Gulf Coast region in fall, uncommon in winter and spring. In Tennessee Valley and Mountain regions, fairly common in fall, uncommon in winter and spring, and rare in summer. In Inland Coastal Plain, uncommon in winter, spring, and fall, and rare in summer. Low Conservation Concern.
DESCRIPTION: The sharp-shinned hawk belongs to the hawk family Accipitridae. Accipiter hawks have short, rounded wings and long tails. The wings allow them to fly rapidly with short wing beats that are interrupted by glides. The long tail acts as a rudder for quick maneuverability. The sharp-shinned hawk is the smallest of the accipiters. Adult males are 9 to 11 inches in length, with a wingspan of 20 to 23 inches, and weigh three to four ounces. Adult females are larger, with a length of 11 to 14 inches, wingspan of 23 to 27 inches, and weigh 5 to 8 ounces. The sexes are very similar in plumage. Adults have a slate blue back and a dark head and neck that give a hooded appearance. Underneath they are white with rust-colored barring across the breast. Immature birds have brown streaking on the breast. Adults have dark red eyes and yellow legs. The long tail has dark and light banding with a thin white band across the tip. The sharp-shinned hawk is very similar in coloration to its cousin, the Cooper’s hawk. The Cooper’s hawk is a larger bird, 14 to 20 inches in length. It has a more rounded tail tip with broad white band across the tip, compared to the square-tipped tail and thin white band of the sharp-shinned hawk. The call is a rapidly repeated, thin “kiu,kiu,kiu” cackle of 15 to 20 notes.
DISTRIBUTION: The breeding range of the sharp-shinned hawk is across most of North America as far north as the tree line, and south into parts of Central America and northern South America. In winter they are found from the central United States south to Costa Rica. They migrate during daylight hours, often flying just above the treetops in early morning and soaring high at mid-day. During fall migration from Canada, they follow concentrated routes and can be observed flying south in large numbers.
HABITAT: The sharp-shinned hawk is a bird of the forest. It breeds in boreal regions and winters in forested habitats or areas of dense shrub.
FEEDING HABITS: They feed almost entirely on small birds and occasionally on small mammals, reptiles or insects. They hunt from cover, making short, swift attacks. They thread their way through trees and brush with ease and speed, and can capture birds in flight. They often attack birds at feeders. The prey is usually well plucked of feathers, but they often swallow the beak, legs, and feet.
LIFE HISTORY: Because it is a bird of the forest and hunts from cover, the sharp-shinned hawk, like other accipiters, is not as visible or readily observed as other hawks. Sharp-shinned hawks construct a nest in a dense grove of large conifers or deciduous trees. The birds are secretive in their nesting to avoid predation by the other larger accipiters, the Cooper’s hawk and the goshawk. The nest is well-built and large for the bird’s size, usually placed 20 to 60 feet above ground in a crotch or branch next to the tree trunk. Nesting occurs from May to July. The average clutch is four or five eggs, which are incubated for about 30 days. At hatching, the young are covered in down and their eyes are open. After hatching, they are brooded by the female, and the male hunts and brings food. The young birds fledge after three weeks and continue to rely on their parents for feeding and protection for another month. After leaving the nest, the adults will pass food to the young in midair. They will hover briefly and release the prey for the fledgling to catch.
During fall migration, sharp-shinned hawks become much more visible and are one of the more numerous species recorded during hawk watches at migration corridors. Since they are exposed during migration, the small sharp-shinned hawk is sometimes preyed on by the larger bird hunting raptors.
Bildstein, K.L., and K. Meyer. 2000. Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus). In The Birds of North America (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Robbins, C.S., B. Bruun, and H.S. Zim. 1966. Birds of North America. Golden Press, New York, NY, 340pp.
AUTHOR: Stan Stewart, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries