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What is a Sharp-Shinned Hawk?

Angie Bates
Angie Bates

The sharp-shinned hawk is a bird of prey that often hunts at bird feeders. These hawks can be found in almost all of North America and some of South America. They nest in trees in forested areas, but often come to urban areas to feed. The scientific name for the sharp-shinned hawk is accipiter straitus.

Considered small for a hawk, sharp-shinned females reach between 11.5 and 13.5 inches (29-34 cm) with a wing span of around 24 inches (61 cm). Males are smaller still, reaching 9.5-10.5 inches (24-27 cm). Males have a wingspan of about 21-25 inches (53-63 cm). Females also weigh more than males, about 5 to 8 ounces (142-227 g) compared to the males' 3 to 4 ounces (87-114 g).

Veterinarian with a puppy
Veterinarian with a puppy

Similar to the Cooper's hawk, the sharp-shinned hawk is bluish grey on top with red barring on its underside. The female is darker and more brownish with less barring. A juvenile will be brown on top with a streaked brown belly. This hawk's tail is also barred and squared at the end, and its hooked beak is short and dark.

Sharp-shins mainly eat small birds. They will, however, eat small mammals and some larger insects. These hawks capture birds in the air or on the ground after a quick dive. They are often stealthy—even using cover to hide—and enjoy the songbird buffet that man-made bird feeders provide.

The sharp-shinned hawk nests in coniferous forests. Nest are placed high in trees, 20-60 feet (6.1-18.2 m) above the ground, against a trunk and supported by thick branches. Sometimes this bird will use the old nests of crows or other hawks.

Thought to mate for life, sharp-shinned hawks engage in courtship flights before their breeding season, which occurs March through June. Females generally lay between three and eight eggs, which hatch after 21-35 days. The females remain at the nest to incubate the eggs while the males hunt for food. When the young hatch, they are white and downy.

Young sharp-shinned hawks will be able to leave the nest after 21-32 days. After leaving the nest, they will stay with their parents for nearly a month. When feeding, parents will toss food to the young in midair. Sharp-shinned hawks can live as long as 13 years, but frequently live as little as three.

In the 1940s-70s, there was a major decline in the sharp-shinned hawk population because of the use of the pesticide DDT. This pesticide thinned the egg shells of many birds so their eggs were crushed before the embryos could mature. Since the 70s, the sharp-shinned population has partially recovered in the United States due to protection under the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Sharp-shinned Hawk?

The Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) is the smallest hawk in North America, known for its agile flight as it weaves through dense forests. It has short, rounded wings and a long tail that help it maneuver while hunting small birds and rodents. This raptor exhibits a slate-gray back with orange-barred underparts in adults and brown streaks in juveniles.

Where can you find Sharp-shinned Hawks?

Sharp-shinned Hawks have a broad range, inhabiting forests across North America. They breed in Canada and the northern United States, and many migrate to Central and South America for the winter. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, they are also found year-round in parts of the U.S., including the Appalachians and the West Coast.

How do Sharp-shinned Hawks hunt?

Sharp-shinned Hawks are stealthy predators that often use cover to ambush their prey. They rely on surprise and rapid, agile flight to catch birds mid-air or to snatch them from foliage. Their hunting technique involves quick, darting movements followed by brief periods of perching inconspicuously, waiting to strike unsuspecting prey.

What do Sharp-shinned Hawks eat?

These raptors primarily feed on small birds, making up about 90% of their diet. They also eat rodents, insects, and occasionally lizards. During migration and winter, they often target bird feeders as a food source, preying on songbirds that congregate there. Their diet varies with availability and season.

How can you identify a Sharp-shinned Hawk?

Identifying a Sharp-shinned Hawk involves looking for its distinctive physical characteristics: a relatively small size, squared-off tail with a narrow white tip, and short, rounded wings. Adult males have a blue-gray back and females are slightly larger with a brownish back. Both sexes have a reddish-orange barred chest and belly.

Are Sharp-shinned Hawks endangered?

Sharp-shinned Hawks are not currently endangered; they are listed as "Least Concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, they face threats from habitat loss and environmental contaminants. Conservation efforts focus on preserving forest habitats and monitoring populations to ensure their continued survival.

Discussion Comments


You might not want to see a sharp shinned hawk attacking the birds at your bird feeder, but these birds of prey perform a needed service. Without them to thin the flocks, birds would not be as healthy and there would be way too many of them. Hawks, are just doing their jobs.


@Feryll - I agree with you about the bird feeder offering an easy meal for some animals who eat the birds that come after the birdseed. I have never seen a hawk at my feeders, but I eventually took down all of my feeders because the neighborhood cats were always stalking the birds and snatching one when they got a chance.

I felt like I was setting the bait for the poor little birds and aiding the cats in their efforts to rid the neighborhood of birds. I have put bells on the collars of my cats in case they find go bird hunting this gives the birds a fighting chance. However, you might be surprised how quickly a cat will adapt and learn how to keep the bell almost silent.


I remember watching a nature on TV in which the narrator talked about how the watering hole was the most dangerous place in the animals' environment because that's where both prey and predator had to visit. No matter how dangerous it was, the animals had to brave the dangers or else die.

I think this is the perfect description of the backyard bird feeder because the sharp shinned hawk is not the only predator who knows he can find a meal at the bird feeder.

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      Veterinarian with a puppy