Earlier this week, we had a sharp-shinned hawk working the bushes in our backyard. This is a fascinating species to watch. Their hunting technique is an active process. This is a bird that dives into small bushes and shrubs in an effort to flush small birds from the safety of cover.
Sharp-shinned hawks prey primarily on birds and are in a family of raptors referred to as accipiters. This genus also includes northern goshawk and Cooper’s hawk. Unlike broad-winged hawks (such as the red-tailed hawk), which soar high in the air as they hunt for prey, accipiters are masters of flying right through trees and bushes.
Their speed and maneuverability is inspiring to see. When songbirds detect the presence of a bird of prey, they instinctively seek cover and scatter into the nearest vegetation. It is a foolish strategy for a small songbird to try and fly away from an accipiter.
A songbird’s best chance for survival is to stay hunkered down in the safety of a thick bush. Sharp-shinned hawks do their best to flush birds out of vegetation, knowing that if they can get a bird to leave the safety of the bush they have a clear advantage in speed. They can overtake them in flight, snatching them right out of the air with their talons.
It is quite a thrill to watch a sharp-shinned in action. It will dive into a bush and come out on the other side, repeating this tactic several times. Occasionally one bird here and one bird there will escape the safety of the bush undetected by the hawk as it is plunging in and out of the bush.
Sometimes sharp-shins will dive into the center of a bush and move from branch to branch in an effort to flush a frightened bird. And there are times when they will even get down on the ground and run under bushes – which is a funny sight to see. But catching food is serious business. Their daily survival is dependent upon their ability to catch and eat other birds.
Sharp-shinned hawks are not nearly as common in the Prescott area as their larger cousin – the Cooper’s hawk. Telling the two apart can be very challenging for many novice birders. One of the best ways to tell the two apart is by size. In the “Sibley Guide to Birds,” sharp-shinned hawks are listed as being 11 inches in length. This is a very small hawk. In the same field guide, western scrub-jays are listed as being 11.5 inches in length.
Scrub-jays provide an excellent size comparison and quick reference guide. If you are seeing a bird of prey in your yard and you are not sure whether it is a Cooper’s hawk or a sharp-shinned hawk, compare in your mind the size of the bird you are seeing to the size of a jay. For additional tips on identifying accipiters, I encourage you to check out the text on page 113 in “The Sibley Guide to Birds” or page 101 in the “Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America.”
Speaking of the Sibley guide, don’t forget that online registration for the Verde Valley Birding and Nature Festival is now open (birdyverde.org). This year’s special guest will be author and illustrator David Allen Sibley. This is a rare opportunity to mingle with a distinguished ornithologist and even get your Sibley guide autographed. I know I plan to get his signature!