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Sharp-shinned Hawk Versus Cooper’s Hawk

May 3, 2012

One of the most common tricky bird identification challenges that FeederWatchers face is separating Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks.  Both hawks are becoming increasingly more common at FeederWatch sites and, to the untrained eye, can appear very similar.  This is why a recent interaction caught on camera by Cornell Lab of Ornithology staff member Jay McGowan piqued our interest.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk (left) chases a Cooper’s hawk (right). Photo by Jay McGowan.

It’s not often that one gets to see these two easily-confused species together!  During the interaction in these photos, the Sharp-shinned Hawk mobbed the Cooper’s Hawk, much like you would often see a crow mob a raptor.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk (top) mobs a Cooper’s Hawk (bottom). Photo by Jay McGowan.

Seeing these two species juxtaposed next to each other allows us to really see some the features that distinguish them.  Notice, first of all, the size-difference between the two.  The Sharp-shinned Hawk is noticeably smaller in size than the Cooper’s. Next, notice the small head of the Sharp-shinned Hawk (almost comically small), which barely projects beyond the leading edge of its wings, compared to the large brutish head of the Cooper’s Hawk, which sticks out noticeably.  Also take note of the spindly, pencil-thin legs of the Sharp-shinned Hawk next to the thick, stocky legs of the Cooper’s Hawk.

For those of you wondering why the Cooper’s Hawk is upside-down in the second photo: raptors that are being mobbed often try to scare away their harassers by flashing their outstretched talons.  The easiest way to do this in mid-air is to perform a quick barrel roll to show off the weaponry. In this situation, the Sharp-shinned didn’t appear to be very intimidated!

Based on the above ID tips and our Tricky ID page, can you tell which of the hawks (from this same pair) is in this photo?

Which hawk is it? Photo by Jay McGowan (Click to view larger.)

For more tips on identifying these species, see our Tricky Bird ID page on Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks.  Check out All About Birds for more information on Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks.

  1. Leslie Ackel permalink
    May 3, 2012 6:32 pm

    This is an amazing entry. Thanks so much!

  2. Tom Dimitrov permalink
    May 3, 2012 7:46 pm

    Good photos and identification tips, thank you!

  3. Mike and Bonnie Fidler permalink
    May 5, 2012 1:47 pm

    Answers a constant source of “discussion” in our backyard! Thanks.

  4. May 7, 2012 8:50 am

    Is it the sharp-shinned? We have seen both of these in our yard, but it’s really helpful to have this entry! Great photography catches!

  5. J. McNerney permalink
    June 9, 2012 8:54 pm

    Great info; thanks!

  6. Brian Hensler permalink
    June 19, 2012 10:53 pm

    It looks like the sharp shinned hawk in the picture.

  7. Brandon permalink
    July 22, 2012 11:36 pm

    Awesome captures!

  8. JEAN RICHARDS permalink
    August 11, 2012 2:22 pm

    Shape of wings as they curve into the neck look like a Cooper’s Hawk, but the size of the head makes it look like a Sharp-shinned. Would like to know which this one is.

  9. September 10, 2012 8:23 am

    Very helpful as both visit, especially in the Winter.

    It seems from the image that the sharp shinned has a short tail versus a long one on the sharp shinned shinned, is this correct or is it the angle of the image?

    • September 10, 2012 4:42 pm

      Hi Kenneth,

      The tail lengths do not differ much between the two species in relation to their overall body size.

  10. Birdlover permalink
    September 10, 2012 12:38 pm

    Sharp shinned…is this correct…

  11. sara swijter permalink
    September 13, 2012 12:54 pm


  12. September 13, 2012 2:59 pm

    Hi Everyone,

    Anyone who guessed that the photo at the bottom was of a Sharp-shinned Hawk is correct! The giveaways are the small size of the head (barely passing the front wing edges) and the square tail. Note, however, that the shape of the tail can change easily in flight – so it’s not always going to appear square.

  13. September 23, 2012 10:04 am

    its the sharp shinned! and now I think I can say that we have a Coopers that has been hanging around our home for the last few years!

  14. Mildred Prunty permalink
    September 23, 2012 10:31 am

    Sharp shinned hawk. From your apt description that it’s head is small and barely gets past the leading edge of the wing.

  15. Ginnie Yerkovich permalink
    September 23, 2012 10:55 am

    one way that may help to tell the difference : the end of a Sharp-Shinned’s tail is Square, a Cooper’s is rounded or Curved. Hence, s-s, c-c. this does not always work though because an older sharp-shinned’s tail can be worn from age and use and may become curved but it a good point to use along with other id clues.

    • September 24, 2012 10:11 am

      Hi Ginnie,

      This is often a good way to tell the difference between the two, but is not always reliable. As you noted, the tail can become worn throughout the season and the shape of the tail can change easily in flight – so Sharpies’ tails are not always going to appear square.

  16. Pierre permalink
    September 23, 2012 10:56 am

    Telling these two is always going to be challenging, you hardly ever get the view and perspective you need for a sure fire ID. Great photos and post, should help. Thanks!

  17. Helen permalink
    September 23, 2012 10:57 am

    This is excellent! Thank you so much for helping us all to learn more about birds.

  18. September 23, 2012 11:04 am

    Love this article. I think this quandary will be settled from now on.

  19. Jamie Thomas permalink
    September 23, 2012 11:13 am

    It looks like a Sharp Shinned because of the squared tail. They visit my bird feeders on a regular basis and I have had the opportunity to watch them chase and catch sparrows and house finches in mid flight. I have even been able to sit out on my deck and take photos of one stalking their prey. Awesome to be able to watch on you own backyard.

  20. Jeanette permalink
    September 23, 2012 11:33 am

    Wonderful shots! Thanks!

  21. September 23, 2012 12:03 pm

    Thanks for this post! The photo showing the two hawks together is very helpful. I see accipiters in flight fairly often but have a hard time distinguishing them, unless they perch.

  22. Meralee permalink
    September 23, 2012 12:17 pm

    Very Helpful-great shot!

  23. September 23, 2012 2:11 pm

    Thanks! Very helpful and awesome shots.

  24. Black Belt Auntie permalink
    September 24, 2012 10:07 am

    The past five years we’ve had the same pair of Cooper’s – twice with juveniles in tow – overwinter on our local golf course (in South Florida) picking off dozens of non-native ring-necked doves. We started seeing mourning doves returning this year as the number of aggressive ring-necks has dropped a bit. Thank you Cooper’s Hawks!

  25. September 27, 2012 2:58 pm

    love it, great stuff, thanks.

  26. paul anderson permalink
    October 18, 2012 1:22 pm

    we have a “hawk” in our neighbor hood now in, tampa florida, recently.
    Coincidently, we went to this website to try and see if we could “I . D.” the type of hawk since we do,on occasion, have several in the area.
    The Jury is still out but I have a good pair of filed glassess now and can zoom in on the differences. thanks,paul

  27. Louise de Montigny permalink
    October 24, 2012 5:47 pm

    Good to know. I’m sometimes wondering what I’m flapping my broom at when they are chasing my chickens. I think I can be far more certain now!

  28. Carl permalink
    November 4, 2012 8:09 am

    I just hope I can remember all those details when a hawk goes by at 60MPH

  29. Steve permalink
    November 29, 2012 3:55 pm

    I just filmed a Coopers Hawk from indoors at about 20 feet away as it ate 1 of 3 pine siskins from our feeding area.

  30. blaze permalink
    August 22, 2013 12:59 am

    Hello. Can anyone tell me if this is a Coopers or Sharp Shinned? In the pictures, this Hawk has both of the characteristics. Sometimes a flat tail, sometimes round. I have yet to see it fly because every time I see it, its walking around in my yard or bathing in the sprinklers…Just this morning he ate one of my favorite little Black Phoebes’s that I have grown quite fond of the last 5 years. Anyways, you will find some very nice photos here. Most of the time, this Hawk lets me get up to 3 feet close to him/her

    Sharp Shinned Hawk 1
    • August 22, 2013 10:25 am

      Hi blaze,

      This is a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk. Sharp-shinned Hawks only nest in remote areas, so by the fact that this accipiter is in a populated area, we can deduce that it’s likely a Cooper’s Hawk. Beyond that it is bulky, athletic, and block-headed — traits of Cooper’s Hawks.

      • blaze permalink
        August 22, 2013 10:55 am

        Thank you so much!

        When I first seen it, I thought sharp shinned but then after some time, I was also thinking Coopers Hawk! I cant wait to see him grow old!

        I just hope he doesnt eat any more of my black phoebe’s. I have a ton of finches and other brown birds he can eat but yesterday he ate one of the few little birds in my back yard that I was kind of partial to.

        Yes, I am in Southern CA, Orange County. Im in an Area called “Little Saigon” In Westminster. We see alot of these Hawks around here because I live close to many parks with very large trees. This particular Hawk lives in a huge tree down the street from my house.

        Thank You again!

  31. blaze permalink
    August 22, 2013 11:02 am

    Oh great pics of the Hawks in flight BTW!!

  32. James Bailey permalink
    October 10, 2013 10:13 am

    The head length point always confuses me. For example, in the first image, both appear to have an equally “protuding” head.

    At least the immatures are easy.

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