A Close Encounter with a Cooper’s Hawk (or Was It a Sharp Shinned?)

In late October I was just finishing a walk at the Rattray Marsh when a large dark bird flew up the path behind me and straight over my head only a few feet above me. While I was still awestruck, it landed on an almost bare branch and proceeded to pose for a few quick photos. Even with the sun behind it, I was able to get photos that helped me identify it as a Cooper’s Hawk.

Photo of Coopers Hawk Showing Tail Shape On NaturalCrooksDotCom

Was This a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp Shinned Hawk

Just like it can be hard to tell Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers apart, it can be difficult to tell Cooper’s and Sharp Shinneds. I’m lucky this bird gave me a good look and even posed where I could clearly see it.

Here’s why I’m pretty sure this was a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk not a Sharp Shinned:

  • It seemed huge at the time. Cooper’s can get to Crow sized; Sharp Shinned are more Jay sized.
  • The end of the tail feathers makes a rounded shape not a straight line.
  • The tips of the tail feathers seem to have a wide white or clear band not a narrow one.
  • The eyes appear to be close to the bill not halfway between the front and back of the head.

Photo of Coopers Hawk Looking Down On NaturalCrooksDotCom

  • The legs seem fairly short and sturdy.
  • The lower belly is mostly white and the streaks on the chest are fairly thin and dark.
  • Cooper’s Hawks are known to nest in the Rattray Marsh park.
  • Other more experienced birders agree.

Why You Might See a Cooper’s (or Sharp Shinned) at your Bird Feeder

Cooper’s Hawks eat mostly medium-sized birds. That includes Mourning Doves and Pigeons which is why they sometimes choose to hunt near bird feeders. They will eat squirrels and chipmunks as well.

Photo of Coopers Hawk Juvenile On NaturalCrooksDotCom

Sharp Shinned will also check out the hunting near feeders. They prefer small birds, though, like sparrows. They also eat mice and sometimes grasshoppers.

If all of the birds near your feeder suddenly “disappear” – freezing and keeping quiet—they may  have noticed the shadow of a Cooper’s or Sharp Shinned’s passage.

When they are not living in tree-filled suburban parks, both types of hawk prefer forested areas. They are built to fly between trees and among branches at high speeds.

I’ve seen both Cooper’s and Sharp Shinned in and around my yard but I’ve never had as long or as good a view as I had of this juvenile bird at the Rattray. I hope to meet it again!


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