Hawks I: Neighborhood Hawks

For many, hawks are our most striking birds: large, imposing, often associated with visions of noble soaring through the aether with a magisterial gaze cast down on the crawling world below.

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

– Tennyson, “The Eagle”

All of which certainly has some truth to it. I would be the last one to protest against hawk glorification (well, maybe not the last – I think that other poetic hawk-idolator Robinson “I’d sooner kill a man than a hawk” Jeffers might have a lock on that position in that queue). But these poetic generalities can gloss over the very real presence of hawks in our neighborhoods and surrounding wild lands. Hawks surround us, sometimes hiding in plain sight. In this post, I’ll introduce 4.5 of our most notable neighborhood raptors, all commonly seen throughout Novato and Marin County (see the follow-up post for the hawks of our local wildlands).

Two bigger hawks: Red-tails and Red-shoulders

Red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks both belong to the genus Buteo, characterized by broad wings, short tails, and skillfulness at cruising around in unflapping circles (they will also hunt from poles and wires). These are both large hawks that you might see patiently perched somewhere or soaring in the sky above our homes – they are less likely to be seen dashing out of a tree in a sudden backyard ambush at your birdfeeders (see the Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks below for that).

The red-tailed hawk is the most common hawk both here and across the country. If you see a big hawk that you want to identify, the first question is: is it a red-tail? In some cases, they are made easy to recognize by their brick red tails. But two important caveats need to be made: juvenile birds do not have red tails and even adult tails won’t look very red when seen from below (i.e. when a bird is soaring above you).

Juvenile – Jerry McFarland

Note light, unstreaked bib and non-red tail

Adult – Sandy Harris

Dark helmet; patches on front wing edge

If you see a perched red-tail, a good thing to look for is their combination of a dark head, a light (i.e. mostly unstreaked) bib at the top of the breast, and then streaking below that on the rest of the breast and belly. If you see one flying right above you, you can also look for the “patagial marks,” dark patches on the inner, front edges of the wings shared by none of our other raptors. Red-tails are fairly mighty birds, with a wingspan of around 4 feet, and they are sometimes mistaken for eagles when suddenly seen at a short distance by people not used to such close encounters. They eat birds less frequently than the Accipiter hawks below, generally favoring a variety of mammals. And snakes. They seem to like snakes.

Adult Red-shouldered Hawk – Susie Kelly
Juvenile Red-shoulder – Jan Arendtsz

The red-shouldered hawk is distinctly less common, but is still seen fairly frequently in neighborhoods that have some trees and are not too completely urbanized. While belonging to the broad-winged Buteo genus, it is true that red-shoulders are somewhat less representative of the genus than the classic red-tail: they often hang out in trees and do a fair bit of flapping in flight, although they are capable of soaring in fairly relaxed fashion. Adults can be recognized by their vivid black and white checkering on the wings, thin white bands on black tails, and red breasts. Quite dramatic. Juvenile red-shoulders are rather more muted versions of the same general pattern, with browns replacing blacks and vertical streaking replacing the red breasts. Compared to red-tails, juvenile red-shoulders will not show a light bib at the top of their breast, but instead have continuous streaking all the way up to the neck. Red-shoulders are fairly flexible eaters, but rarely go chasing after birds in your yard. Smaller rodents, lizards, snakes and amphibians make up the larger part of their diet.

The backyard bird-eaters: Coops and Sharpies

If you see a hawk pursuing your backyard songbirds, it will belong in the great majority of cases to one of these two species: the Cooper’s hawk or the sharp-shinned hawk. These two hawks belong to the Accipiter genus, known for short wings, long tails, lots of flapping, and sneak attacks out of the trees, in contrast to much differently shaped Buteo hawks like the red-tail above, with its broad wings and short tails optimized for patient, efficient soaring.“Coops” and “Sharpies” (or “Sharps” if you feel that diminutive “-ies” are inappropriately cuddly for predatory application) are closely related and notoriously similar birds. Cooper’s hawks are bigger and sharp-shinned hawks are smaller, but a small male Cooper’s can be very close in size to a large female sharp-shinned. (Hawks are generally victim to what I remember Golden Gate Raptor Observatory director Allen Fish once jokingly referring to as “the terrible disease called reverse sexual dimorphism,” in which females are the larger, stronger sex.)

See the comparison below for how to distinguish them, but first a general note: both of these two species have a distinct juvenile (first year) and adult plumage. Adults generally have reddish horizontal barring on their breast and a dark grayish back side. Juveniles have brown vertical streaks on a light breast and a brownish back.

Adult Coop by Tim Hastings
Adult Sharpie by Jerry McFarland
Juvie Coop by Heather Paul
Juvie Sharpie by Alan Schmierer

Cooper’s Hawk

  • Common all year round
  • Bigger, around crow size. More likely to pursue larger prey like doves or quail.
  • Legs look strong and sturdy.
  • Coops look big headed, with a stern, mean expression.
  • Outermost tail feathers distinctly shorter than the next ones in; field guides will often describe this as giving a rounded appearance to the tail in flight.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

  • Mostly winter (~Sep-April)
  • Smaller, close to robin or dove size. Favors smaller prey, like feeder-visiting songbirds.
  • Legs look pencil thin.
  • Heads are small, giving a wide-eyed, freaked-out expression.
  • Outermost tail feathers about as long as the others, giving a squared off look to the tail corners in flight. But if you see one perched and can see the tail, the real question is: are the outermost tail feathers shorter?

There are lots of other fine points, which you can explore in this in-depth comparison from Cornell’s Project Feederwatch. With practice you can develop a pretty reliable sense of the subtler differences, allowing you to categorize a hawk at a glance. If you’re new to the Coop-Sharpie game, the above tips are some of the easier ones to apply. But sometimes you don’t get a good look and you just can’t tell!

Turkey Vulture – Andrew DuBois

Turkey Vulture

Abridged comic by bird and moon

The turkey vulture is not really a hawk: they lack the tearing beak and talons and belong to a different genetic lineage. But they are big, they do eat animals, and they are the most common big bird to see soaring around Bay Area skies. They are generally pretty easy to recognize, even at a distance: tiny red heads, mostly black plumage (wings are two-toned, black and silver, when seen from beneath while flying), and a distinctive flight style characterized by a strong v-shape to the wing position and frequent little rocks and wobbles. And while not generally numbered among our most beautiful birds, vultures perform an invaluable service in cleaning up carrion.

See the follow-up post to learn about the hawks in our wildlands.

Top photo: Red-tailed Hawk by Don Bartling

Leave a Reply