by Feb 3, 2016About Birds2 comments

Each fall, ridgetops throughout the northeastern United States play host to flights of migrating hawks. The most spectacular of these in our area are the flocks of Broad-winged Hawks that pass through in mid-September. But providing the most consistent flight throughout the fall hawk-watching season are the three species in the genus Accipiter, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Northern Goshawk. kajsdl;kjas dfl;jsaf

A steady stream, rather than a flood like that of the Broad-winged Hawks, the accipiter migration stretches from late August into November, with a peak in early to mid-October. Catching updrafts above ridges, migrating accipiters are often more easily seen closely than other, higher-soaring hawks.

The accipiters, the so-called “true hawks,” are structurally adapted for pursuing and catching other birds, and this distinctive structure allows the hawkwatcher to identify them as members of this genus. All three accipiters, relative to other birds of prey, have long tails and short rounded wings. This combination of traits enables these hawks to maneuver through trees and brush after their prey, the long tail acting as a rudder that lets them change direction abruptly, and the bluntness of their wings makes it possible to fly through smaller spaces in the foliage more easily.

Telling the three species apart is usually much harder than identifying a bird as an accipiter. Sharp-shinned Hawks and Goshawks will seldom be confused, simply because they differ so greatly in size—Sharpies range from the size of a Blue Jay to slightly bigger, and Northern Goshawks are about the size of a crow or larger.

The main problem is telling the intermediate-sized Cooper’s Hawk from the other two, and this can be very difficult. Even experienced birders make mistakes, and sometimes at close range. Some general guidelines for telling Sharpies and Cooper’s apart are as follows: on average, Sharp-shinned Hawks have a squared-off or notched tail tip, while Cooper’s Hawks have a rounded end to the tail. When soaring, Sharp-shinned Hawks also show a slight bend in the leading edge of the wing, while the Cooper’s holds the leading edges of its wings straight. This difference in soaring posture gives the Cooper’s a stiff, rigid look, “like a flying cross,” subtly different from the Sharpies more curved wing posture.

Further, there is often a difference in the way the two species flap their wings, although using this trait for identification requires much comparative experience with the two species. The Cooper’s Hawk tends to have a stiffer-winged appearance when it flaps compared to a Sharpie, with less movement of the “wrists” of the wings.

While accipiters have rebounded from the negative impacts of DDT, pesticides are still a problem. Because raptors are predators, any poison found in their prey—including mouse bait or rat poisons—can sicken the hawk. Avoid using any rodenticides.


  1. Edward Canora

    I have a pair of Coopers hawks living about 50 feet from my apartment. This is the 3rd year that I know of and they have successfully fledged 1 chick each year, this year so far they have 2 chicks.

  2. R.D.

    This answers my questions about accipiter identification perfectly. Thank you for writing.


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