We have had an abundance of hawks in our yard recently. It makes sense, because there is a virtual buffet of small birds at our feeders on which they can prey.
Two hawks that are really difficult to distinguish from one another are the Cooper’s Hawk (“Coop”) and the Sharp-Shinned Hawk (“Sharpy”). I have included photos of both birds this week.
As a fairly inexperienced birder, I have found these two the most difficult to identify. But both can be seen in the Rio Rancho area, so it’s helpful to have some knowledge about the differences between the two. According to the Audubon Society, there are some specific features to look for.
To me the most easily distinguished feature is the shapes of their heads. The Coop has a very flat, almost rectangular head. The Sharpy has a much rounder and smoother looking head. And within their heads, their eyes are also a good clue. The Coop’s eye is much smaller in relation to its head size than the Sharpy’s. You can see in the photos that the Sharpy’s eyes take up quite a bit more room in the head than the Coop’s does.
There are other tell-tale signs between the two birds. Other things that experienced birders look at are the shape of the tail feathers (which we’re unable to see in my photos of the Sharpy, given the angle at which I had to photograph him). When perched, the Coop’s tail feathers are more rounded than the Sharpy’s, whose tail feathers are sort of squared off at the end.
Another really helpful feature is the nape of their necks. An adult Coop has a dark gray “cap” that ends just at the back of the head. The Sharpy has similar coloring that extends down the back of the neck.
Their size can also be helpful – but only if you know whether you’re looking at a male or female. Sharpy’s tend to be smaller than Coops, but in both varieties of hawk, the female is larger than the male. This means that the female Sharpy is about the same size as a male Coop.
So, although they look very similar, there are some features of these two birds that one can use to tell them apart.