If the birds at your feeder seem skittish, there may be a sharp-shinned hawk nearby, ready to pounce. Sharp-shinned hawks are built for speed and maneuverability with short rounded wings, a slender body, and long narrow tail. They fly like a fighter jet as they chase fleeing songbirds into and through thick cover.
Adult “sharpies” have reddish breasts and a dark grey head and back. Young sharpies have brown backs and white breasts coarsely streaked with brown. Sharpies appear small-headed and smaller-bodied when compared to the Cooper’s hawk. Flying sharpies almost always follow this rhythm: flap, flap, flap, glide.
Sharpies are not a very vocal raptor but when they do call it is a high-pitched, fast tyoo-tyoo-tyoo-tyoo call and often occurs near the nest.
Forest habitats of almost any type are home to sharp-shinned hawks, but they are most likely to be found where songbird populations are flourishing. Sharpies have a vast breeding range, but they prefer large tracts of woodland for nest sites, so they are rarely observed on the nest. In the fall, most migrate southward because of passing cold fronts. Some migrate as far as Central America, but many spend the winter in the continental United States.
This songbird specialist is actually doing nature a favor by weeding out the slowest, weakest, or oldest birds, which helps to keep bird populations healthy. While some people may not wish to attract a sharp-shinned hawk to their property, if you have small birds at your feeders or in your gardens, sooner or later they will attract the attention of a passing hawk.
Sharpies use surprise and speed—emerging suddenly from behind a line of trees or bursting forth from a quiet, concealed perch. As surprised birds scatter, the sharpie pursues one and grabs it with its long, taloned toes. The hawk may finish its meal on the ground or it may carry it away to a safer location. Sharp-shinned hawks will take prey as large as ruffed grouse and as small as hummingbirds.
The nest of a sharp-shinned hawk is usually well hidden. In fact, you are more likely to hear the adults calling to one another as they share the nesting and feeding duties than actually see them. The nest is made of sticks and is built by the female high in a tree. She lays four to five eggs and incubates them for about a month. After hatching, the female broods the young birds for about 20 days. A month after hatching, young hawks are ready to leave the nest, though they spend several more weeks being fed by the parents.