SCORES & OUTDOORS: Was it a Sharp-shinned hawk or a Cooper’s hawk? Hard to tell

Sharp-shinned hawk, left, and Cooper’s hawk, right. Note the square tail of the Sharp-shinned hawk, compared to the rounded tail of the Cooper’s hawk.


by Roland D. Hallee

I have seen some interesting acts of Mother Nature during my travels, but what happened last week probably tops most of them.

The first was somewhat insignificant because I had seen it one time before. Arriving home from work late last Wednesday, I noticed a dead crow in my backyard. Not knowing quite what to do, I called the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and was told it was OK for me to dispose of the bird. I feared that because they were vulnerable to West Nile disease, I should report it. I wasn’t sure I should touch it.

But what I saw on Saturday, topped that without a contest. After picking up my granddaughter at a basketball game to take her home (they live in a condo village in Waterville), I turned around in my daughter’s driveway. In front of her garage, I noticed a rather large bird obviously plucking the feathers of the prey it had taken down. Upon closer inspection, I saw that the unfortunate fowl was a male mallard duck.

The hunter was a rather smallish hawk that sat there almost motionless once it spotted me. It began to look uncomfortable with my presence, and flew into a nearby tree. I made a mental picture of the raptor and would try to identify it. Immediately, I ruled out broad winged hawk and redtail hawk, both of which I am familiar.

My research indicated to me that it was either a Sharp-shinned hawk, or a Cooper’s hawk. They had similarities that I couldn’t quiet determine which was which.

Sharp-shinned hawks are small, long-tailed (this one had a long tail) hawks with short rounded wings. Again, a match. Adults are slaty blue-gray above, with narrow, horizontal red-orange bars on the breast. Again, that was what it had. However, Sharp-shinned hawks breed in deep forests. This was in the center of Waterville.

The Sharp-shinned hawk is a woodland raptor, skilled at capturing birds on the wing. Its short, rounded wings permit it to snake through brushy areas. Its long, narrow tail serves as a rudder. They will surprise their prey with their speed, and prefer the ease of taking down birds weakened by disease or injury.

Now, the Cooper’s hawk resembles the Sharp-shinned hawk so much that even experts are often fooled. That didn’t leave me with a warm, fuzzy feeling about identifying the right culprit.

The Cooper’s hawk, however, has one real distinction: it is larger, more powerful, and able to kill larger prey. This particular hawk had taken down a mallard duck. Not quite the size of a chickadee which the Sharp-shinned hawk would prefer.

For decades during the 19th century, Cooper’s hawks were referred to as “chicken hawks” for their preference to taking chickens from backyards. So, for many years, they were hunted and slaughtered by the thousands. Fortunately, people came to understand the role that predators play in nature, and hawks are now protected by federal law. But, the Cooper’s hawk is its own worse enemy. They are woodland birds, so when they see a window, they see whatever the glass reflects, be it sky or trees. They think they can just fly through it. Sadly, they sometimes even succeed, but the price of success is still a broken neck.

Cooper’s hawks tend to be more common in suburban areas, where Sharp-shinned hawks nest in conifers and heavily wooded areas. The Cooper’s hawk has a rounded tail, that when folded, the outer feathers are shorter than the inner ones. The Sharp-shinned hawk’s tail is square, and both species have broad dark bands across their long tails. The hawk I saw had those bars.

So, what did I see. I’m going to have to say it was a Cooper’s hawk only because of the tail. The bird I saw had a tail that had shorter tail feathers on the outside and longer ones inside. That was probably the only thing I noticed that was significant. It was definitely the tail of the Cooper’s hawk. So, I guess I’m going to have to go with that.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Name the four NFL teams that have never made a Super Bowl appearance.

Answer here.


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