Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sharp-shinned hawk

Not a juvenile--this is the size of the adult
 sharp-shinned hawk.
The first sharp-shinned hawk I saw was at a raptor rehabilitation center, recuperating from a broken wing. Intrigued by this little hawk, about the size of a jay, I looked it up in a bird book when I got home and learned that the "sharpie" is the smallest of the accipiters--hawks that feed mostly on other birds. Its habitat is woodlands where, although not often seen, it is especially common at the edge of clearings.

The second sharp-shinned I saw apparently hadn't read the same book, because it was sitting in a tree near my backyard bird feeder. The smaller birds had obviously noticed it before I had. Not a single well-fed junco or plump house finch was anywhere to be seen.

But a week or so later, there was an explosion of feathers outside the kitchen window as the sharpie nailed a pine siskin that was flying toward the feeder. The hawk began regularly returning to pick off my fatted songbirds, and I consulted other bird books. 

One said that sharpies sometimes hunt at a number of neighborhood feeders, patrolling them like trap lines. This tendency to kill other birds earned the hawk the description of "murderous little villain" in Birds of America, published in 1936. It was "relentless," and "a little demon" that attacked in a "blind fury." The book explained that there were good birds and bad birds and that the sharp-shinned, along with its fellow accipiters the Cooper's hawk and the goshawk, "deserve destruction."

Some people today might still agree with Birds of America. It can be tough to see coddled songbirds turned into fast food for a marauding hawk. But I found my backyard sharpie so interesting I couldn't begrudge it the occasional junco.

Have you ever seen a sharpie? Ever had one patrol your feeder? 


  1. People tend to anthropomorphize the wild animals and make the carnivores into villains. Yet most of us, and even more in 1936, thought nothing of eating cows, chickens, etc. No we haven't had the pleasure of any hawks in our yard --that we've noticed, but we did have a starling mimicking an eagle in the top of our fir tree a few years ago.

  2. Never seen a "Sharpie," but I love the idea of them patrolling feeders like a trap line. Adaption to changing environment is a great survival characteristic.

  3. I have had a sharpie and a cooper's patrol the feeder in the yard. Last year, I photographed a sharpie with a mourning dove in its talons. It was an emotional challenge to not intervene and stop that hawk from killing the dove.

  4. I often see small hawks around West Seattle. I always confuse the Sharpies and Coopers without binocs, but I think we have both. Once, though, I saw some kind of hawk swoop through my yard chasing a squirrel, who dove into the bushes and just got away by a hair. The hawk was moving so fast, all I could see was a blur, and then it was gone. Maybe a redtail? The squirrel didn't come out of hiding for a while!

  5. Oh, the symbolism!