Whether lurking around and storming feeders or streaking through the trees after a bird, these fairly common raptors are both beautiful and aggressively resist identification. Determining if you are looking at a Coopers or Sharp-shinned Hawk can be really confusing. If this happens to you, don’t worry as even experts aren’t always on the mark. Adults of both species have blue-gray backs and orange-barred chests, and red eyes, and are so similar that it can be very tricky to get it right. To make the ID of an adult Coopers or Sharp-shinned Hawk, look for the following:
1 – Size: In general, Coopers are larger – about the size of a crow, and Sharp-shinned are a bit smaller – about the size of a Blue Jay. That’s in general, as female Sharp-shinned are larger and can be the same size as a smaller male Coopers. However, a very large hawk of this description is most likely a female Coopers.
2 – Head shape: Coopers’ heads seem larger and can look a little flat when their feathers are down. Sharp-shinned have a smaller, rounder head. If the bird looks like he has a little crest, this will be a Coopers.
3 – Tail shape: Cooper’s tails are more rounded and tapered; Sharp-shinned have a tail that is more squared-off.
4 – Legs: Coopers have thicker legs than Sharp-shinned. This may be difficult to see, but if the bird you are looking at has very thin legs, this would be a Sharp-shinned
5 – In Flight: Coopers have slower wingbeats and the head projects out from the body; Sharp-shinned hawks have more erratic wingbeats and their heads are kept close to the body
If you are looking at a young one….juveniles of both species will have brown backs and brown streaks on their chests, and yellow eyes. A juvenile Coopers will have thinner streaks mostly from midway to the top of his chest; juvenile Sharp-shinned hawks have thicker streaks that extend farther down the breast.
Coopers Hawk (left); Photo Credit: Stan Tekiela; Sharp-shinned Hawk (right); Photo Credit: Hawk Mountain