Wild Profile: Meet the sharp-shinned hawk

A sharp-shinned hawk standing on the grass By David Byron Keener/Shutterstock

No bigger than a blue jay, the sharp-shinned hawk is small but lethal. Thanks to its short wings and rudder-like tail, this bird can swoop down suddenly to nab songbird victims such as finches and warblers. The sharp-shinned hawk is agile, able to swerve and dart through branches once it spots its prey from above the tree tops.

Just like wolves and other predators, sharp-shins usually target sick or injured birds. That’s a good thing—it helps ensure that only fit, healthy individuals survive and reproduce. They’re killing machines: male sharp-shinned hawks that are in charge of feeding their young in the spring catch and slaughter six to 10 songbirds per day! Although songbirds make up 90 per cent of a sharp-shin’s diet, they’ll go after anything that they feel they can reliably catch: quail, shorebirds, doves, swifts—even falcons. Not to mention rodents, and, occasionally, insects such as moths or grasshoppers (a nice, light snack).

Female sharp-shinned hawks are larger than males, and almost twice as heavy. This makes them less nimble, but also able to target bigger prey such as woodpeckers. You’ll know if a sharp-shin is hanging around your backyard bird feeder because its presence tends to whip prey birds into a frenzy; they’ll start emitting loud, terrified alarm calls. (Danger! A hawk is here!)

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The sharp-shinned hawk is a “pursuit hunter,” fond of surprising prey by bursting out of a hidden perch, or, when targeting a rodent, pouncing from a few feet above. They use cover to their advantage, and will hide in shrubs in order to sneak close to prey and then ambush them. So sneaky!

A sharp-shinned hawk’s migration patterns follow those of its food source:  small birds. They hit cottage country in the spring soon after sparrows and other small species arrive in April, and stick around until mid-October. Some cottage-country sharp-shins don’t go further south than southern Ontario, but others travel all the way to Panama for the winter.

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