We knew hawks were in the neighborhood. A week or two ago the Pigeons started getting nervous. Instead of 10 or more Pigeons feeding in our yard at once, we began seeing only one or two at a time. Then Monday I saw a Cooper’s Hawk flying over the highway at the end of our block, and Tuesday I saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk soaring west to east above the trees in our neighbors’ yards.
Then this morning a dark shape swooped into our yard, over the rooftops and towards a Mourning Dove on the feeder. The dove took off, all the House Sparrows scattered, and the dark shape landed in a small ash tree, hidden by leaves. The shape dropped down to Ethan’s brush pile — it was a hawk, reaching its head and legs through the dead sticks towards a sparrow cowering within. By the time I had grabbed Aaron’s camera, the hawk had given up and hopped onto the grass, where it stood quietly for a few seconds:
The hawk stood quietly on the grass before beginning to fly around the yard.
Then the hawk began to fly around our small yard. It landed briefly on the back fence, where a Fox Squirrel charged it, forcing it to fly. It landed on the feeder’s squirrel baffle, but slipped on the plastic. So it took off again, landing atop the wooden birdhouse built by Uncle Will:
The hawk landed briefly on Uncle Will's birdhouse before taking off again.
Then it landed on the fence and was chased off by the squirrel again. After another brief stop in our ash tree, it took off and headed west over the neighbor’s garage towards Rehm Park.
Now the question was, what kind of hawk was it? The long tail, rounded wings, and overall shape identified it as a type of forest-living hawk called an Accipiter. But there are two common types of Accipiters in our neighborhood this time of year, and I had seen both of them earlier this week: The larger Cooper’s Hawk and the smaller Sharp-shinned Hawk.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’ Project FeederWatch developed an online table to help tell these hawks apart. With its slate gray back and reddish barring on the front, this was an adult bird. So we are going to use the first part of the table to try to identify it. Since I mostly saw the bird from behind or from the side, we have four useful clues to work with:
1. SIZE: Feederwatch says Sharp-shinned Hawks average 10 to 14 inches long and Cooper’s Hawks average 14 to 18 inches long. Female Sharp-shinned Hawks are larger than males — sometimes as large as male Cooper’s Hawks. We could estimate the size of our hawk by comparing it with things in our yard. In the next photo we inserted a red bar that’s about 12 inches long (by comparison with the size of the nest box):
If the red bar is about 12 inches long, then how long is the hawk (from tip of tail to beak)?
2. HEAD: The FeederWatch site says of the Sharp-shinned Hawk, “The feathers on the crown and the back of the neck are dark, giving the bird a ‘hooded’ appearance.” The Cooper’s hawk, in contrast, has a darker crown and lighter gray neck, so it looks like it’s wearing a dark cap. Here’s what our yard hawk looked like:
Does the dark on the hawk's head and the back of its neck look more like a hood or a cap?
3. LEGS: FeederWatch says the Sharp-shinned Hawk has “thinner, pencil-like legs that can look long when compared to Cooper’s,” while the Cooper’s Hawk’s legs are thicker and shorter looking. Here’s a close-up view of our yard hawk’s legs:
Do these legs look thin or thick, long or short?
4. TAIL: FeederWatch says the Sharp-shinned Hawk’s tail is long and “typically square, showing prominent corners. The outer tail feathers are usually the longest (or nearly so).” It also says the Sharp-shinned’s tail has a “narrow white tip.” Here’s the tail from our yard bird:
Is the tip of its tail rounded or square? Is the white tip narrow or wide?
So, how did you score each question? Here’s what other people — including me– said (revised November 16, 2009 based on comments, emails, and arguments with my older son):
1. Length. Our hawk looks about 14 or maybe 15 inches long. That’s big for a Sharp-shinned Hawk, small for a Cooper’s — but most people other than me counted that as a point for Cooper’s Hawk.
2. Head. The dark on the head and neck looks more like a hood than a cap to me, but birders with more experience said it looked like a cap to them — score another for Cooper’s Hawk.
3. Legs. The legs look relatively narrow and long to me, but others disagreed — I’ll call this a draw.
4. Tail. The tail looked more squared than rounded to me — all the tail feathers looked about the same length (especially when it was spread open, but I didn’t get a good photo of that). So, tail shape suggested Sharp-shinned Hawk to me (although others disagreed). However, the thickness of the white band on the tail tip leans more towards Cooper’s Hawk.
Looking at all the evidence — as reinterpreted for me by more expert birders — I now think this was a small Cooper’s Hawk, probably a male. Do you agree with me? Either way, please leave a comment, below.
Note added October 13 at 4:30 p.m.: We just had a very large adult Cooper’s Hawk land on our back fence — our second yard hawk of the fall! It sat on the fence, about four feet from a Gray Squirrel, for almost a minute. The squirrel didn’t charge the hawk, and it also didn’t back off. The hawk saw us through the window and flew off before the squirrel left (and before Ethan could get a photo.)
By comparison with the fence, I’d say this hawk was at least 18 inches long. It had a dark cap, plus almost as much dark on the upper neck as the hawk I wrote about above. That’s one of the reasons I’m reconsidering my identification of that first yard hawk of the fall.