Birder beware: These Oklahoma look-alike raptors may need more than a wild double take. Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, both known as “blue darters,” can be distinguished by subtle differences in size and the shape of the head and tail.
Similarities: Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks are similar in coloration, eye color, habitat, and behavior, making identification a challenge. Adults of both species are slate blue gray above, with reddish barring on the breast, dark bands on the tail, and red eyes. Juveniles are more brown in color but still have prominent streaking on the breast, and have yellow eyes. Both species are primarily found in wooded habitats, and both feed primarily on live songbirds and small mammals.
Differences: Cooper’s hawks are the larger of the look-alikes, averaging 14-15 inches in length. The dark gray coloration of adult birds rarely leads into the nape, giving this particular blue darter a more “capped” appearance. Additionally, Cooper’s hawks have a long, rounded tail, and can be found in Oklahoma year-round. Sharp-shined hawks, on the other hand, average 10-14 inches in length; have a small, rounded head; and a long, square-tipped tail. The sharp-shinned hawk only winters in Oklahoma.
Bird feeding can be a tricky hobby if Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawks begin taking advantage and give a different meaning to the term “bird feeder.” Traditionally targeted feeder birds like cardinals, sparrows, or doves may temporarily abandon a feeder if predators are drawn to the commotion of a feeding station. If raptors or other predators are scaring off the preferred visitors, take the feeders down for a few days or weeks to persuade the predator to move on to another location.
If you see a Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawk in your backyard, local park, or the larger Outdoor Oklahoma, consider sharing the sighting on free nature platforms like eBird and iNaturalist. Adding a photo to your observation can allow others to help confirm the identification.