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15 Interesting Facts About Sharp-shinned Hawks

Often confused with Cooper’s Hawks, the diminutive Sharp-shinned Hawk is similar in many ways to it’s larger cousin, but it’s harder to observe and has more secretive habits. They are also often seen stalking bird feeders since their primary diet consists of other birds. Here are 15 interesting facts about Sharp-shinned Hawks.

Facts about Sharp-shinned Hawks

1. Why are they called Sharp-shinned?

There’s a sharp ridge on the leading edge of its legs. So, it’s called the sharp-shinned hawk because it does, in fact, have sharp shins

2. Where do Sharp-shinned Hawks live?

Sharp-shinned hawks live in both North and South America. In North America, they live as far north as Alaska, and south to Panama. In South America, there’s a population living in the Andes from Colombia south to Bolivia. There’s a separate population living along the Atlantic coast of Brazil and well into the Amazon basin, south through Paraguay and Uruguay into northern Argentina. 

3. How can I identify a sharp-shinned hawk?

These hawks are small with long tails. They have blue-gray coloring on their backs, and orange-red bars on their chest. They have short, rounded wings and a squared-off tail. In flight, their wings are typically pushed forward and used in short, fast beats.

Sharp-shinned hawk (Image credit: Ilona Loser | CC BY-SA 3.0 | wikicommons)

4. What do sharp-shinned hawks eat?

Sharp-shinned hawks feed almost exclusively on songbirds. American Robins appear to represent the upper limit for prey size for this hawk. They will occasionally target small mammals and insects if birds are scarce. 

5. Where do Sharp-shinned hawks migrate?

In North America, the Sharp-shinned Hawk breeds primarily in Canada and Alaska, migrating south into the continental U.S., Mexico, and Central America. There are year-round populations in the Rocky and Appalachian Mountain regions, though.

6. Do sharp-shinned hawks mate for life?

We actually don’t know for sure. Sharp-shinned hawks are very secretive and little is known about their mating habits. We simply don’t know if they breed with the same mates each year or if they choose a new mate for each breeding season.

7. Where do Sharp-shinned hawks build their nests?

They seem to favor conifer trees as nesting sites, usually deep within the forest under thick cover, near the tops of the trees. They’re built on horizontal limbs, where the limb meets the trunk. These nests are hard to spot because they’re usually very well hidden.

Image: Mike Morel, USFWS | Wikicommons

8. What’s the difference between Sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper’s hawks?

Sharp-shinned hawks have smaller, more rounded heads and are typically smaller overall. Cooper’s hawks also have more rounded tails. Behaviorally, Cooper’s hawks are much bolder, more aggressive predators.

9. Are Sharp-shinned hawks rare?

While the sharp-shinned hawk population declined in the 1960s and 1970s due to the use of DDT, numbers have stabilized and possibly rebounded since then. Since these hawks tend to be more secretive than other species, it can be hard to get an accurate picture of their population size at times. 

10. Do Sharp-shinned Hawks kill chickens?

It’s possible that large females may occasionally hunt chickens, but if there’s a hawk bothering your chickens it’s far more likely to be a Cooper’s Hawk. Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks look very similar, but the Cooper’s hawk is larger. Most sharp-shinned hawks would have trouble killing and eating something the size of a chicken.

11. How do Sharp-shinned Hawks use their talons?

Sharp-shinned Hawks appear to be very dexterous with their talons– even managing to remove birds from wire mesh bird traps to eat them. They also use them to manipulate live prey before killing it. While most raptors can do this to some extent, the Sharp-shinned Hawk seems to be more skilled at it.

12. How long do Sharp-shinned hawks live?

While at least one individual in the wild lived to be 12 years old, the average lifespan of while Sharp-shinned Hawks in the wild is around 5 years. These small hawks are frequently hunted by larger raptors, which is why their average lifespan is so short.

13. What habitat do Sharp-shinned Hawks prefer?

Sharp-shinned Hawks prefer to live deep in the forest where they’re less likely to encounter larger raptors. This means they’re rarely spotted except when migrating. They do occasionally live in suburban areas, but these individuals are quite vulnerable to predation.

14. What do Sharp-shinned hawks sound like?

Their typical call is a high-pitched “kik-kik-kik” sound. This is usually used as an alarm call, which makes them one of very few raptors who are primarily identified by an alarm call. That’s due to their small size and vulnerability.

Listen to their calls in the video below. 

15. Are Sharp-shinned Hawks small?

Male sharp-shinned Hawks are the smallest hawks in North America, while females, at 30% larger, are often bigger or at least equal in size to the males of other species. Since many other hawks prey primarily on birds, this makes sharp-shinned hawks prey for other raptors which is why they’re such secretive, hard to observe birds.