Sharp-shins

An accipiter in search of prey

An accipiter in search of prey

Whoosh! A grey streak passing the bird feeders… birds scattering everywhere! After an unsuccessful pass at the feeder birds, this hawk landed on a branch near our living room window. Joyce saw all this and alerted me. I scrambled for a camera. Luckily the bird stayed put long enough to get a couple of photographs. We have seen a few attacks like this so far this Spring, but have not witnessed a kill. However, we have seen some suspicious feather piles in a couple of places.

This bird is undoubtedly either a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) or a Sharp-shinned Hawk (A. striatus). According to the experts, there is no one character that will unfailingly distinguish these two species in the field. This one has a square tail, thin legs, and lacks a strong color contrast between the crown and back. All these are characters that would indicate a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and I believe that is the correct identification. The “Sharp-shin” common name was given because this species has a ridge on the front of its leg at the part that would correspond to a human shin. Most other birds have rounded “shins”.

Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks  and Goshawks (A. gentilis) are jointly called “Accipters”. They have short wings and are adapted to fly with great agility through forests in pursuit of other birds, which make up most of their diet. Accipter in Latin means “to seize”, which is appropriate for this group of hawks.

Scientific names do not always have to be descriptive. Sometimes new species are named after a person. In 1828, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a French naturalist, named the Cooper’s Hawk after William Cooper, a fellow naturalist, who gave Bonaparte a specimen of the species.


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