2013-12-12 / Nature

Winged Invaders in the Backyard

By Jack Kelly


ribankruptcy.Sharp-netshinned Hawk outside author’s home eyeing bird feeders. (Photos by Jack Kelly) ribankruptcy.Sharp-netshinned Hawk outside author’s home eyeing bird feeders. (Photos by Jack Kelly) I often hear questions about the smaller, quick hawks that are seen in backyard trees and lingering around bird feeders in Newport County. The vast majority of the birds-of-prey seen in these settings are Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks. These raptors are known as accipiters, differentiated by their specialized bodies, heads, wings and tails. Both species have long tails and short, broad wings employed for hunting small birds in close quarters such as hedges and thickets. The two species look very much alike and it is difficult to identify either one on the wing. Bird watchers usually concentrate on four essential parts of the hawks: the head, wings, tail and belly.

The Cooper’s Hawk has a body length of 17 inches and a wingspan of 32-34 inches. It has a large, long, and flexible head and neck, with its eyes set farther forward than the Sharp-shinned. It has a pale nape that gives the bird a capped look. It has a longer, more Attorneynarrow tail than the Sharp-shinned, usually with a broad, rounded end with a wide pale band at its terminus.dave@It has narrow, somewhat lanky wings that taper gradually toward the tip and displays slow and graceful wingbeats in flight. Adult Cooper’s Hawks have heavily-streaked breasts and bellies, while juveniles have sparse streaks on a white belly, and they all have bare, heavy yellow legs.


One of the three Snowy Owls that has established winter residence at Sachuest Point. One of the three Snowy Owls that has established winter residence at Sachuest Point. The Cooper’s hawk is known for its swift attacks on small birds at feeding stations, as well as its raids on poultry farms. It became known as a “chicken hawk” and bounties were once paid for their carcasses. This practice was halted in the 1950s as the populations across the country suffered severely. This species nests and breeds across parts of the American Midwest, as well as most of southern Canada. The voice of this raptor consists of low-pitched, nasal “kih!” that is usually given in a long, staccato, chattering series.


Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. The Sharp-shinned Hawk has a body length of 12 inches and wingspan of 24 inches. This petite raptor resembles a small version of the Cooper’s Hawk. Its head is small and neckless, with eyes set in the middle of its face. It has rusty cheeks contrasting with its dark crown and nape. The species boasts a squared tail end that often shows a central notch and three bands, broad wings, and short, thin yellow legs. Juvenile members are heavily marked and streaked below. Sharp-shinned Hawks nest and breed in forested areas across parts of the lower 48 states, in Alaska, and across all of southern Canada. It has a very high-pitched voice of “kir!” exhibiting a chattering quality.

As with most hawk species, the females of these two breeds are larger than their male counterparts. The female Sharp-shinned is near in size and color to the Cooper’s male. Both species can breed in their first spring at just under one year of age, which leads to constant flow of young hawks.

These raptors are migratory and large numbers pass hawk watch stations in the fall as they wing their way south. The Newport region hosts a number of both species during winter and they can be found in a multitude of habitats including forests, scrublands, and city parks. While they mainly prey on small birds, both species will take small vertebrate like mice, voles and other rodents. To protect against attacks at bird feeders, it is best to place the feeders close to trees, shrubs, or bushes, or in hedges near other obstacles.

As of Monday, Dec. 9, three juvenile Snowy Owls have taken up temporary residence at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. There has been a record number of reports of other Snowy Owls in areas such as Barrington, Westerly, Warwick and Beavertail State Park. There appears to be a major irruption (mass migration due to the collapse of food sources or overfeeding) of the species across New England. These large, diurnal (daytime hunters) owls are foraging in the Island Rocks section and along the southern coast of the refuge. Given the number of owls that have appeared in the past week, it is possible they may show up anywhere in our region.

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