It all began last year in early spring. I was sitting on a bench in our front yard watching the birds at the feeders. A large dark shadow crossed over the feeder and a sparkle of goldfinches rose from the feeder and took to the trees. I looked up and saw a sharp-shinned hawk flying overhead. It let out a shrill, high-pitched call.
Sharp-shinned hawks, also known to birders as “sharpies,” are a raptor (bird of prey) in the genus Accipiter. This means their diet is largely other birds, as opposed to small mammals and reptiles, such as snakes. These are the foods of other hawks known in the genus Buteos, such as red-tailed hawks commonly seen on fence posts along highways.
Sharpies and the larger Cooper’s hawk are very difficult to tell apart. The female sharp-shinned is larger than the male (common in all raptors) thus, the female sharpie is about the size of a male Cooper’s hawk, making identification even more difficult. Their markings are almost identical, especially on the fly.
Upon closer inspection, the Cooper’s head is larger and sticks out from the wings, which appear to be straight across in flight (much like an airplane). A sharp-shinned’s wings have a slight bend in flight as if their “shoulders” are showing. If they are perched, while both have rust-colored flecked breasts the sharp-shinned hawk’s will continue with the rust all the way to the belly and the Cooper’s has white at the belly. The sharp-shinned tail is square shaped at rest, and the Cooper’s is more pointed. These may sound like simple markers but, believe me, identification can still be difficult.
When I reflect back to that first sighting at the birdfeeders last spring, I am not really sure if it was a sharp-shinned or a Cooper’s hawk. Up until that point, I had never seen a Cooper’s in this area, so my ignorant assumption was that it was a sharpie.
Now, for the rest of my story. From that point forward, we continued to see this bird, or birds, as there was a pair of them throughout the spring. It was obvious they were nesting. The male and female’s shrill calls filled the air for several months.
In about early July, I could hear this explosion of high-pitched screams, and I knew the babies had fledged. It was as if a firecracker of screamers had gone off and never stopped. It began early in the morning and lasted until dusk for weeks on end; bothersome, even for me – which is saying a lot.
I saw the young flying through the forest presumably calling to their parents and their nestlings. Flying for short bouts from tree to tree, and then farther and farther. They would hang around the feeders and watch the birds. Once in a while, I would see one fly to a tree where a titmouse was sitting, not to really catch it just to see if it could get close. The antics and learning to hunt were engaging to witness.
Then, about late August, the noise subsided. The young left to find hunting grounds of their own. I captured pictures of a large female Cooper’s hawk and realized from studying calls and more information that this is what they all must have been. And now they are back, and the story begins again.
Reach Lynn Youngblood at TheGreenSpace@sbcglobal.net.