Cooper’s Hawk vs Sharp-Shinned Hawk: How to ID These Birds

Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks are two of the most easily confused raptors in North America, making it challenging for birders and nature enthusiasts alike to tell them apart.

These accipiters, also known as birds of prey, share several similarities in appearance and behavior, but there are subtle differences that can help you distinguish one from the other.

Size is one of the first distinguishing factors between these two species. Cooper’s hawks are larger, with an average size of 15-20 inches, while sharp-shinned hawks are smaller, averaging 10-14 inches in length.

However, the overlap in size between a small male Cooper’s hawk and large female sharp-shinned hawk makes relying on size alone insufficient for identification.

To accurately identify these raptors, you must also observe differences in shape, color, and behavior.

Key Takeaways:

  • Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks are two similar-looking accipiters often found in North America, but they can be distinguished by size, shape, color, and behavior.
  • Observing head shape can help differentiate between the species, with sharp-shinned hawks having a smaller rounder head, and Cooper’s hawks a squared head with a capped appearance.
  • Paying attention to their habitats, feeding habits, and breeding differences can also assist in accurate identification of these raptors.

Cooper’s Hawk vs Sharp-Shinned Hawk

When comparing Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk, you will notice several physical differences between the two species. Understanding these distinctions can help you accurately identify each bird.

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Size Differences

Size is one of the most significant characteristics that separate these two birds. Generally, Cooper’s Hawks are larger, being around the size of a crow, while Sharp-shinned Hawks are closer to the size of a Blue Jay or Mourning Dove 1. This difference might be subtle when there’s only one bird in sight, but it’s a good starting point when comparing the two species.

Plumage Colors and Patterns

Feather color and pattern are other helpful physical distinctions. Adult Cooper’s Hawks typically display dark blue-gray backs, while adult Sharp-shinned Hawks have brown backs2. On the other hand, juvenile birds of both species have brown streaks on their fronts, which can make them more challenging to identify based on color.

Head and Neck

When observing the head and neck area of these birds, look for variation in neck feather color. A Sharp-shinned Hawk will have dark grayish-blue feathers on both its head and neck, while a Cooper’s Hawk’s neck feathers are lighter in color than its head feathers3.

Tail Shape

The shape of the tail also differs between these species. Cooper’s Hawks have rounded tail shapes, and Sharp-shinned Hawks usually have square or straight tail shapes4. Be careful when examining this feature, as the tail shape can sometimes appear similar, depending on the bird’s posture.


The legs of these hawks can provide another clue when distinguishing between them. Sharp-shinned Hawks have smaller, slender legs, while Cooper’s Hawks have thicker, more robust legs5.

Unique Behavioral Differences

When observing Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks, you’ll notice several unique behavioral differences that can help you distinguish between the two species. The following information covers aspects such as prey, flight, behavior, migration, and markings.

Both Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks are birds of prey that specialize in hunting smaller birds, but they do exhibit different preferences. While Cooper’s Hawks tend to hunt larger birds like doves and even crows, Sharp-shinned Hawks often target smaller birds such as songbirds and sparrows source.

In terms of flight patterns, Cooper’s Hawks typically have a more deliberate and steady flight, alternating between quick wing beats and gliding. On the other hand, Sharp-shinned Hawks display more agile and swift flight patterns, with rapid wing beats followed by short periods of gliding source.

Behaviorally, you’ll find that Cooper’s Hawks have a longer neck, giving them a more regal and distinctive appearance compared to the shorter neck of the Sharp-shinned Hawks source. Additionally, Sharp-shinned Hawks often appear more nervous and edgy, frequently looking around for potential threats.

Migration patterns also differ between these two species. Generally, Cooper’s Hawks are partial migrants, with some individuals traveling short distances to warmer climates in the winter months, while others remain in their breeding grounds year-round. Sharp-shinned Hawks, however, are long-distance migrants, often traveling greater distances to reach their wintering grounds source.

Lastly, markings can help you tell the two species apart. Sharp-shinned Hawks display a uniform color from their back to the top of their heads, while Cooper’s Hawks have a paler nape with a contrasting darker cap on the head and darker plumage on the lower back source. Paying close attention to these unique behavioral differences will allow you to more easily recognize and distinguish between these two fascinating bird species.

Habitat Differences

When looking at the habitats of Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, you’ll notice some differences that can help you distinguish between these two species. Both hawks can be found throughout most parts of North America, but their preferred locations may vary.

Cooper’s Hawks are known to be quite adaptable and can thrive in a variety of environments. They are commonly found in mixed woodlands, ranging from dense forests to suburban areas with trees. There’s a good chance you could spot these birds in your own urban or suburban backyard. They are also known to venture into Canada, particularly during the breeding season. Due to their curious and alert nature, these birds are sometimes found perching close to houses or exploring yards.

On the other hand, Sharp-shinned Hawks prefer more secluded habitats. They mainly inhabit dense forests and wooded areas, where they can use their smaller size and agility to navigate through the trees. While they can sometimes be found in suburban areas, they are less likely to venture into urban environments compared to Cooper’s Hawks. Sharp-shinned Hawks also have a range that extends into Canada, mainly during migration and winter months.

One key difference to consider is that Cooper’s Hawks are more likely to adapt to changes in their environment, while Sharp-shinned Hawks tend to stick to their preferred wooded habitats. This adaptability may be a contributing factor to the overall larger population of Cooper’s Hawks compared to the Sharp-shinned Hawks.

In summary, by noting the differences in preferred habitats and adaptability between these two species, you can better distinguish between Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks. Keep in mind that both species may overlap in their range and can be found in parts of both Canada and the United States. However, Cooper’s Hawks are more likely to be seen in urban and suburban areas, while Sharp-shinned Hawks prefer dense forests and more secluded locations.

Songs and Calls

When observing Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks, it’s essential to understand their unique songs and calls. This can help distinguish these two species when they are difficult to identify through size or appearance alone.

Cooper’s Hawks produce distinct vocalizations that differ from those of Sharp-shinned Hawks. Their calls are often high-pitched and sharp, a sound that can be associated with their name. You can listen to the calls of Cooper’s Hawks here.

In contrast, Sharp-shinned Hawks are known for their slightly softer and more subtle vocalizations. Their calls can be described as high-pitched but have some noticeable differences when compared with the sounds of the Cooper’s Hawk. To familiarize yourself with the calls of Sharp-shinned Hawks, visit this page.

Aside from their unique calls, both Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks prey on songbirds. When hunting, these hawks tend to emit their calls more frequently. It’s crucial to be aware of this behavior when trying to identify the species near feeders or bird congregations. Speaking of size, remember that Sharp-shinned Hawks are roughly the size of a Blue Jay while Cooper’s Hawks are around the size of a crow, as mentioned here.

By understanding the sounds and calls of these two species, you can better distinguish between the two hawks and appreciate their unique characteristics. Stay attentive to the calls and behaviors that set them apart and utilize this information to enhance your birding experience.

Diet and Feeding Differences

When it comes to the diet of Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks, both are known to be predators that prey primarily on smaller birds. However, there are some differences in their hunting techniques and feeding behaviors.

Cooper’s Hawks are known for their agility and ability to hunt birds swiftly through dense vegetation. They have powerful wings, which help them catch their prey in flight. Some common targets for Cooper’s Hawks include pigeons, robins, and starlings. Besides birds, these raptors might also feed on small mammals and even reptiles when other food sources are scarce.

On the other hand, Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller, lighter, and more maneuverable in the air. They mainly target songbirds, such as sparrows, finches, and warblers. Due to their size and stealth, they can easily navigate through thickets and bushes, ambushing their prey at close range.

You’ll often find that bird feeders attract these two species of hawks. It’s not just because they’re hungry; the gathered songbirds make easy targets for these skilled predators. If you have a bird feeder in your yard, keep an eye out for these hawks lurking nearby or swooping in to snatch a meal.

Aside from their hunting techniques, feeding behaviors vary between these two hawks as well. When feeding, Cooper’s Hawks will typically pluck the feathers from their prey before consuming the meat. In contrast, Sharp-shinned Hawks swallow their prey whole, sometimes regurgitating the indigestible parts like feathers and bones later.

Understanding these differences in the diet of Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks can help you identify them in the wild. As you observe them in their natural habitats or even in your own backyard, keep these feeding habits in mind and appreciate the incredible adaptations that make these birds such effective hunters.


Both Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks belong to the Accipitridae family, and their similarities often lead to confusion when it comes to identification. However, they have distinct differences that can help you differentiate between them.

Cooper’s hawks are larger compared to sharp-shinned hawks. They are typically around the size of a crow, while sharp-shinned hawks are closer in size to a blue jay or a mourning dove. Furthermore, male Cooper’s hawks can measure between 15.5 to 17.5 inches in length, whereas sharp-shinned hawks measure between 10 to 14 inches in length. Due to these size differences, comparing them can be a challenge even for expert birders.

In terms of appearance, Cooper’s hawks have distinct chest markings which are usually narrower, darker, and more sharply defined than those found on sharp-shinned hawks. Cooper’s hawks also have larger, squared-off heads, while sharp-shinned hawks have smoother, rounded heads.

Here are some key differences between the two species to help with identification:

  • Size: Cooper’s hawks are larger in size, with a length of 15.5-17.5 inches, while sharp-shinned hawks measure 10-14 inches in length.
  • Wingspan: Cooper’s hawks have a wingspan of 28-34 inches, whereas sharp-shinned hawks have a wingspan of 20-27 inches.
  • Appearance: Cooper’s hawks have more distinct chest markings and larger, squared-off heads, while sharp-shinned hawks have smoother, rounded heads.

It’s important to note that the size of some male Cooper’s hawks can overlap with larger female sharp-shinned hawks. This makes identification even more challenging, especially for beginner birdwatchers. Taking the time to learn more about these commonly confused species can give you valuable insight into their taxonomy and help you become more confident in differentiating between the two.

By understanding the differences in size, wingspan, and appearance, you can enhance both your knowledge of these captivating birds and your birdwatching skills.

Nesting and Breeding Differences

When looking at Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks, their nesting and breeding behaviors showcase some differences that can help you tell them apart. Cooper’s Hawks, being larger birds about the size of a crow, tend to build bigger nests compared to Sharp-shinned Hawks, which are roughly the size of a Blue Jay.

Cooper’s Hawks prefer to nest in forests or woodlands, while Sharp-shinned Hawks usually choose dense foliage for their nesting sites. The nests of both species are found in trees, but the size and location may vary. It’s worth mentioning that Cooper’s Hawks often construct their nests on horizontal branches near the trunk, whereas Sharp-shinned Hawks tend to pick smaller trees with vertical branches.

In terms of their breeding habits, Cooper’s Hawks have a slightly longer breeding season compared to Sharp-shinned Hawks. When observing these birds, you’ll notice that the females are generally larger than their male counterparts. This size difference can be a helpful field mark when distinguishing between the two species.

One telltale sign to look for when identifying these birds, especially when they are perched, is the color of their napes. Cooper’s Hawks have a distinct dark cap on their heads, creating a contrast with the lighter color on the back of their necks (nape). Conversely, Sharp-shinned Hawks have a darker hooded head without the contrasting nape.

Both Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks are agile predators, but their hunting techniques differ slightly. Cooper’s Hawks often chase their prey through dense vegetation, using their larger size and agility, while Sharp-shinned Hawks rely more on surprise attacks from concealed perches.

Although they are not directly related in terms of nesting and breeding, it is useful to mention that Northern Goshawks, which are larger than both Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks, share some similarities with Cooper’s Hawks. Therefore, when observing these birds, you might want to take note of their size and other features to avoid confusion.

To sum up, understanding the differences in nesting and breeding habits of Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks will provide you with valuable information to distinguish between these two species. Remember to pay attention to factors such as nest size, location, breeding season, nape color, and prey hunting techniques when observing these fascinating birds.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the key differences in size and appearance between Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks?

Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks have some differences in size and appearance. Generally, Cooper’s hawks are larger than their sharp-shinned counterparts. You’ll notice that a sharp-shinned hawk appears the same color from the back to the top of the head. In contrast, a Cooper’s hawk has a paler nape, a darker cap on the head, and darker plumage lower on the back. Additionally, sharp-shinned hawks have shorter necks than Cooper’s hawks, sometimes appearing as if they have no neck at all.

How do their flight patterns differ?

Both hawks are agile and fast, making them skillful flyers. However, there are some differences in their flight patterns. A Cooper’s hawk often flies with rapid wing beats followed by a brief glide, while a sharp-shinned hawk usually alternates between fast wing-beats and longer gliding periods. This distinction can help you identify each species while they’re in flight.

What are the main variations in their habitats and geographical ranges?

Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks do share some similarities in their habitats and geographical ranges. Both species can be found in North America, particularly in wooded areas. Cooper’s hawks, however, tend to be more adventurous and are sometimes spotted in urban environments, investigating yards and perching close to houses. Sharp-shinned hawks usually prefer more secluded forested areas, making them slightly less common in urban settings.

How do their hunting techniques compare?

Both species are known for their cunning hunting techniques. As members of the accipiter genus, they have short wings and long tails, making them highly maneuverable in their pursuit of prey, typically targeting songbirds. The difference in their hunting environments comes down to their size: Cooper’s hawks, being larger, are more likely to hunt in open areas, whereas sharp-shinned hawks prefer dense forests where they can use their agility to outmaneuver prey.

What distinct vocalizations do Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks have?

Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks each have their own distinct vocalizations, which helps distinguish them from one another. Cooper’s hawks usually make a series of loud, high-pitched, and stuttering calls. On the other hand, sharp-shinned hawks generally produce shorter, shrill calls, often delivered as a single note.

How can you accurately identify juvenile Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks?

Identifying juvenile Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks can be a bit more challenging. However, there are some clues to help you tell them apart. A juvenile Cooper’s hawk typically has a larger head compared to a sharp-shinned hawk, along with narrower, darker, and more sharply defined stripes on the chest. Observing these subtle differences will aid in accurate identification of these young raptors.



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