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May 10, 2021
Photo by David McQuade
Although it was almost twenty years ago now, I fondly remember an avian interaction I had in the woods that would alter, I imagine, the future of three different species, at least for a short term. I was trekking with a group of high school students imparting a lesson on forest ecology. I had left some materials at our riparian forest site that I needed to retrieve, so I sent the students up the trail with their teacher towards a stand of mature upland oaks. At that moment, from the corner of my eye, I saw a gray blur streaking around a couple of American hornbeams and right past me and cease with a colliding thud and a fluttering of feathers. The blur diverged into two separate objects that immediately fell to the ground. I quickly turned my gaze to the forest floor and found myself in triangulation with the perpetrators of this commotion, a sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) and a little brown bird (Browness littleous); an epic and tense standoff between a predator, its prey and the mysterious character (me) – the Good, the Bad and the…well. The impasse only lasted a few seconds before both birds regained self-awareness and bolted in opposite directions. I guess I was perceived as their mutual threat for that moment. I remain in awe of the agility of the sharp-shinned hawk to effortlessly weave through the particularly dense woods in pursuit of sustenance, and I am sure the LBB is regaling generations of kin about the interaction and its narrow escape.
Sharp-shinned hawks are the smallest of three species from the genus Accipiter that are native to the United States and Canada. Goshawks (A. gentilis) are the largest followed by cooper’s hawk (A. cooperii). Sharp-shinned hawk females, like with most raptors, are larger than the males and are equivalent to the size of a crow. Males are, on average, 40% smaller than the females only growing to the size of a blue jay. They get their name from the sharp, laterally compressed keel-like skin on the front of their long skinny legs.
Sharp-shinned hawks are true forest birds. They breed and nest deep in forest interiors. They are perfectly adapted for forest conditions having short round wings and long tails that they use like a rudder that help them maneuver around trees. Though small in stature they are stout hearted when pursuing their prey, which consists mostly of smaller songbirds like warblers, sparrows, and thrushes and occasionally insects, small rodents, and reptiles. They are “pursuit hawks” and prefer using various covers during flight to strike at short distances. Although they nest in the forest interior, they will pursue their prey at the forest edge and even in wooded suburban neighborhoods where the prevalence of birdfeeders offers the opportunity for a quick meal*.
Sharp-shinned hawks are variable migrators. Some populations, like those that breed in our region, often remain here year-round or migrate short distances while populations that breed in far northern climates may migrate great distances south during the winter. They are solitary during breeding season and prefer to nest in conifers for cover and protection from predation. The larger females do most, if not all, of the nest construction while the males, I guess, strut around and pretend to be in charge. The female broods the young during the first few weeks while the male hunts and delivers prey to the nest. At about a month, the young start travelling out of the nest to nearby branches and begin to fly a few weeks later. Once the young can fly consistently, they will start receiving food from the adults while both are in flight. The young remain with the parents for another few weeks before venturing off.
Photo by Matt Davis
Sharp-shinned hawks are easily confused with cooper’s hawks since they both have similar coloring in both immature and mature stages, and both occupy similar forested habitats. Female sharp-shinned hawks are often the same size as male cooper’s hawks, which can really confound identification. Their tails can help you distinguish between the two species. Sharp-shins will have a squared off tail while cooper’s hawks have a longer and more rounded tail. Sharp-shins also have smaller heads in proportion to their wings. I’ve read where birders describe them as flying mallets and cooper’s hawks as flying crosses. Both fly in the similar pattern that consists of 3-6 wing flaps followed by a glide. This is the same for most species of Accipiters. Sharp-shin wing flaps will usually be much faster than the cooper’s and difficult to count.
Since my encounter with the sharp-shinned hawk that day, my appreciation for this forest raptor has only grown. They are a species that was devastated by DDT but has made a remarkable comeback and have made adaptations to succeed in a changing environment. Unfortunately, climate change may have an effect on their breeding areas and the ability for nestlings to survive. Rising temperatures could extirpate them from our region as acceptable breeding sites move north. I am hopeful that efforts in our region to reforest open ground and to keep forest from being converted to other land uses will help maintain a hospitable habitat.
*It should be noted that all hawks are protected under federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and harming them will result in a hefty fine. The most efficient practice for keeping hawks away from feeders is to take down the feeders for a few weeks.
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