Cooper's hawk vs Sharp-shinned Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk vs. Sharp-shinned Hawk

Cooper’s vs. Sharp-shinned Hawk is one of the most common identification questions for backyard birders. Adults both have a gray/blue back, long legs, and a banded tail, and juveniles also look similar to each other. However, if you know the identification points to look for, it can be much easier to differentiate the two.

When deciding between a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk one of the first things to consider is range. The range of the Cooper’s Hawk spans over more of the United States year round, with Sharp-shinned Hawks spreading out more in the winter. Depending on the time of year, this could narrow down your choices.



First, let’s start with features that apply to adult and juvenile birds. In general, Sharp-shinned Hawks will be smaller than Cooper’s Hawks with the average individual measuring about 12.5 inches, and the average Cooper’s Hawk measuring about 16.5 inches. However, females are larger than males in both species and a large female Sharp-shinned Hawk can be about the same size as a small male Cooper’s Hawk. In general, if the bird seems very small (about Blue-jay size or smaller for Sharp-shinned) or very large (about crow sized or larger for Cooper’s) then then size can be used fairly reliably.


Another field mark present in both adults and juveniles is body shape and head size. Sharp-shinned Hawks will appear to not have much of a neck, with a small head. Cooper’s Hawks will appear to have normal proportions compared to other hawks. This feature can also be noticed in flight. The general body shape of a Sharp-shinned Hawk will also appear barrel chested with smaller hips, making the bird look top heavy, almost like the Hawk version of Gaston from beauty and the beast. The Cooper’s hawk body shape will be much more tubular with a center of gravity more near the middle of the body.


In adults and juveniles Sharp-shinned Hawks will appear to have longer thinner legs than Cooper’s Hawks and the eye on the Sharp-shinned may appear closer to the middle of the back and front of the head where in the Cooper’s they may appear closer to the front of the head, although this field mark can be subjective.


If you get a clear view of the tail this can also assist with ID, although I wouldn’t rely on this as your only field mark. In general, Cooper’s Hawks will have tail feathers that appear more rounded at this tips, while they are more squared off in the Sharp-shinned Hawk. This can be deceiving depending on how spread out the feathers are, and if there are missing feathers. There can also be differences in the amount of white on the tail tip (Cooper’s Hawks will have a broader white tip of the tailfeathers while Sharp-shinned may show a thinner white band) but this can be worn off the feathers which makes it a difficult feature to use reliably.

Flight Pattern

In flight, the Cooper’s Hawk will often fly with slower wingbeats before gliding. Sharp-shinned Hawks may have a more erratic-looking flight with faster wingbeats before gliding.

Hood vs. Cap

Now let’s move on to characteristics of only adult birds. Both Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks will have gray-blue backs with rufous and white barring on their chests, and red eyes. One of the more distinctive differences in adults is that the Sharp-shinned Hawk will often appear hooded with a dark nape while the Cooper’s Hawk will appear capped, white a light nape.


Sharp-shinned Hawks may also appear as though they don’t have a neck, while Cooper’s Hawks will normally show a more pronounced neck.

Chest Streaking

Now let’s move on to the juveniles. Juveniles of both species have brown backs with white spots, brown streaks on the chest, and yellow eyes. The most reliable color field mark is that the streaking on the chest is bold and larger in Sharp-shinned Hawks (it may also appear more blurry) and is thinner and more defined in Cooper’s Hawks. The streaking may also not go down as far on the lower stomach in Cooper’s Hawks.


There are also some more anecdotal behaviors that have been noted between the species that may be true some of the time but not always. It’s been suggested that Sharp-shinned Hawks prefer to perch in trees and shrubs while Cooper’s Hawks may be found more often on fences or poles. Additionally, Cooper’s Hawks may target larger prey such as does while Sharp-shinned Hawks might go after smaller birds.


In summary, an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk will normally appear smaller with almost no neck, a broad chest, a hooded head, long thin legs, eyes closer to the middle of the head, and a squared off tail with a thin white tip. In flight they may also appear more erratic. Cooper’s Hawks will generally be larger with a capped head, normal neck, tubular appearance, thicker legs, eyes closer to the beak, and rounded tail feathers with a thicker white band at the end. Their wingbeats in flight may also appear slower. Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawks will have more streaking on the chest that appears almost blurry, while Cooper’s Hawks will have finer, more defined streaking with possible less on the lower stomach. While you’re out in the field try to note as many ID features as you can and get photos when in doubt. In the end, it’s always okay to mark the bird down as a Cooper’s/Sharp-shinned Hawk. This is a tricky ID, but hopefully with these tips, you’ll be armed with the best knowledge about differentiating these two species.

If you prefer to watch our video on the topic, check out the link below!

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