SHARP-SHINNED HAWK
Accipiter striatus

      The accipiters are a genus of hawks that are characterized by relatively short, rounded wings, a long, rudderlike tail and long legs. Three accipiter species are found in North America. From smallest to largest these three are the sharp-shinned hawk, the Cooper's hawk and the Northern goshawk. The flight pattern of accipiters is as characteristic as their conformation, consisting of several steady wingbeats (typically five) followed by a glide, then another series of wingbeats followed by another glide. Accipiters have a marked preference for two things: wooded habitat and other birds as food. These preferences are reflected in the accipiters' build. The shortish, rounded wings power the hawks quickly through their forest domain. The long tail acts as rudder and brake to steer the birds as they maneuver around and through branches and brush. And the long legs pluck prey out of hiding places. If their quarry seeks shelter on the ground, accipiters will relentlessly hunt it down on foot. Fast, powerful and aggressive, these hawks are formidable woodland hunters.

      The sharp-shinned hawk is the smallest, most abundant and most migratory of North America's three accipiter species. The sharp-shin gets its common name from the raised ridge that runs along the inside front of its long, pencil-thin legs. While the sharpie is a true accipiter in its preference for woodland habitat, this little hawk avoids dense, mature forest (woods made up of large, full-sized trees). It takes up residence instead in lightly wooded areas broken up by meadows or abandoned pastures. The forest edges of this type of habitat teem with the small birds - doves, warblers and sparrows among them - that make up about 90 percent of the sharp-shin's diet. While this little hawk does occasionally take small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and even insects, small songbirds are definitely preferred. Its food preference explains why the sharp-shin is highly migratory - the hawk follows its migrating passerine (songbird) prey.

      The sharp-shinned hawk's breeding range extends from the treeline in Alaska and Canada down into forested areas of the U.S. In the East it nests as far south as South Carolina and Alabama. In the West it occurs as a breeding bird right down into Central and South America, as well as on islands in the Caribbean. The species is not found in desert areas, on the grasslands of the Great Plains or in the Deep South. The wintering range extends from southern Alaska and Canada through the United States and down into South America.

      Despite the fact that it is widely distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada, the sharp-shinned hawk is not an easy bird to see for most of the year. This is a forest species that watches and waits from an inconspicuous perch. Or it will snatch up prey after a short, blurringly-fast pursuit. Occasionally a sharpie may be glimpsed grabbing a songbird from a backyard bird feeder. Its body may be discovered at the base of a picture window, because this hawk sometimes collides with windows while chasing down prey. Usually, though, the sharp-shin itself remains invisible, but its presence can be detected by an accipiter trademark. All three North American accipiters carry their prey to a "plucking post," a favorite perch where the hawk methodically pulls off feathers or fur before eating. A log or low branch surrounded by scattered feathers tells the observer that one of our three accipiters is hunting in the area.

      However, the most foolproof way to glimpse a sharp-shinned hawk is to look for it on migration. Since the bulk of the sharp-shin's population nests in eastern Canada, large numbers of this species migrate through the Northeast. In fact, of all the raptors that migrate through New England, the sharp-shinned hawk is the second most numerous, right behind the broad-winged hawk. By October, when the broad-wings have passed through, the sharpie moves into the Number One spot, becoming the Northeast's most common migrating raptor. Under favorable wind and weather conditions, birdwatchers may see spectacular numbers of sharp-shins as the hawks move southward down the Atlantic coast or along the ridges of mountain chains. Watch from a height like Mt. Tom, Mt. Watatic or Mt. Wachusett in Massachusetts. In Connecticut Lighthouse Point, Stonington Point and Quaker Ridge are all good hawk-watching spots.

      And what do you look for? What sets the sharp-shinned hawk apart from other hawks? Well, first let me point out that these species profiles aren't meant to be guides to raptor identification. To identify hawks in the field (or in the air), a good field guide is essential. Three up-to-date, excellent books are: Hawks of North America by William Clark and Brian Wheeler; A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors, also by Clark and Wheeler; and The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley. However, I can briefly describe the sharp- shinned hawk here, as well as dispel a myth that's been around for way too long.

      Seen at close range, this is a surprisingly small hawk, really not much longer and bulkier than a robin. Or at least that's true of the males. Among birds of prey, females are almost always larger than males. The sharp-shinned hawk carries this size difference to an extreme - no other North American raptor species shows such a big difference in the size of the two sexes. The males average 10 inches in length and 3.6 ounces in weight. Wingspan averages 21 inches across. The much more powerful females average 12 inches in length and 6 ounces in weight. Wingspan averages 25 inches across. The yellow-eyed juvenile or immature (young) sharp- shins are brown above, with cream underparts heavily streaked with brown. Adult birds are dark gray-blue to brownish gray above, with chest and abdomen barred with red-brown, and with orange-red eyes.

      Now let's look at a well-established myth. Many birdwatchers and even some reference books will tell you that sharp-shinned hawks are hard to tell from Cooper's hawks, especially when the bird in question might be a large female sharp-shinned hawk or a small male Cooper's hawk. This isn't true. First of all, there is no overlap in size between the two species. Second, sharp-shinned hawks are very slender and delicate-looking birds. The legs particularly seem alarmingly thin. Even the larger females lack the muscular, more robust build of the Cooper's hawk. Third, the eyes of the sharpie are huge and bulbous, seeming to take up most of the head. The eyes of a Cooper's hawk are smaller in proportion to its head. Fourth, the two species have different calls. The alarm call of the sharp-shinned hawk, heard near its nest, is quieter and much less strident than the ear-splitting noise produced by an agitated Cooper's hawk. And, finally, sharp-shinned hawks have more or less square tail tips, while Cooper's hawks have rounded tail tips. I'll leave it to the books mentioned above to go into more detail about the tail difference. From my experience, the best clue to identifying the sharp-shinned hawk is the overall delicacy of the bird.

      The sharp-shin typically chooses to nest in a meadow dotted with stands of small conifers. The nest is built on one or more horizontal branches near the trunk of a tree, or in a crotch. It may not be very high off the ground. The nest is flattish, really a platform of sticks, and is lined with twigs and bark fragments. Four to five eggs are laid, and these hatch, on average, 30 days after incubation begins. The young are on the wing about one month after hatching, which is typical of small raptor species - the young develop much faster than do those of large species. The smaller males reach fledgling (flying) stage earlier and leave the nest sooner than the larger females.

      Before the 1972 ban on DDT use in this country, the sharp-shinned hawk was exhibiting disturbing signs of a population decline. Like peregrine falcons, sharpies were laying thin-shelled eggs, a sign that pesticides concentrated in the tissues of their songbird prey were raising havoc with their reproductive systems. That problem is now minimized, although sharpies that migrate to Central and South America may still be at risk since DDT is still legally used there. The species is considered a rare breeding bird in both Massachusetts and Connecticut. However, the more northern population seems to be stable or possibly even increasing. In general, although this feisty little raptor is not easy to see, the sharp-shinned hawk appears to be holding its own.


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