Accipiters are hawks that inhabit deeply wooded areas. They have short rounded wings and long rudder-like tails which allow them to maneuver among the trees. Their recognizable flight pattern consists of several rapid flaps and then a glide. As a group accipiters are secretive and are observed less frequently than most other hawks.
Sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus)
Sharp-shinned Hawks are the smallest of the three North American accipiters. They measure 10 to 14 inches long and have wingspans of about 2 feet, yet weigh only 3J/2 to 7 ounces.
Young Sharp-shins are brown backed and have brown streaks on their white breasts. As they mature, the colors change: their backs become slate-gray, and their breasts become barred with reddish-brown. Even their eye color changes with age – from yellow to deep red.
The Sharp-shinned Hawk gets its common name from the “shins” of its legs which are not round, but oval and rather sharp. The small head is round, and the long, square-tipped tail has narrow black and gray bands.
They are swift, agile hawks well adapted to flying in heavily forested areas. Their prey, predominantly small birds, is captured in dashing, headlong pursuits. Few “Sharpies” nest in New Jersey, but great numbers do migrate through the state in spring and autumn.
Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
The Cooper’s Hawk is a larger version of the Sharp-shinned Hawk, and the two are very much alike in color and markings. The Cooper’s is crow-sized, 15 to 20 inches long, and has a wing-span of 27 to 36 inches.
The Cooper’s Hawk is chiefly a bird-eating hawk, and almost any bird up to the size of a pheasant qualifies as prey. In addition to birds, it also captures mammals, including squirrels and rabbits, and occasionally takes lizards and amphibians.
During this century the Cooper’s Hawk has decreased in numbers over much of its range. The reasons for its decline are not positively known, but habitat loss, nesting failures from the effects of pesticides, and direct persecution by man could be contributing factors. It is presently classified as a threatened species in New Jersey.
Northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)
The Goshawk is a powerful raptor and the largest of the North American accipiters. It is 20 to 26 inches long with a wingspan of y/2 to 4 feet. The immature is brown above with brown streaking on its white underside, and closely resembles an immature Cooper’s Hawk. The adult Goshawk is bluish-gray above, and its underside is white with a fine black herringbone pattern. All have a white streak above the eye.
Their prey consists largely of birds, from songbirds to ducks and grouse. They also capture numbers of mammals, ranging from mice and chipmunks to rabbits and woodchucks. Hunting from perches or on the wing, Goshawks are aggressive and persistent in pursuit of food and have been known to chase prey on foot.
The Goshawk is a northern bird, but some do breed in the mountains of northwestern New Jersey. They are secretive by nature and prefer to live in dense wooded areas, hence they are seldom observed. Goshawks are currently considered an endangered species in NJ.