Sharp-shinned Hawk vs American Kestrel (Comparison ID Guide)

Did you recently come across a small raptor and want to know if it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk or American Kestrel?

Although these raptors belong to distinct genera (Accipiter and Falco, respectively), telling them apart is not as easy as it might seem, since they share many similarities that can confuse even seasoned birders.

In this guide we’ll help you distinguish between the Sharp-shinned Hawk and America Kestrel based on their physical characteristics, habitat preferences, and behavior.

Side by side comparison of Sharp-shinned Hawk vs American Kestrel

Physical differences between Sharp-shinned Hawks and American Kestrels

Size

The Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) ranges from 9-13 inches in length with a wingspan of 20-26 inches. The females are larger than males but have broadly similar coloration and markings.

Photo showing Sharp-shinned Hawk on the left, and American Kestrel on the right, both perched on a branch

On the other hand, American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) are smaller than their Accipiter counterparts – around 8-11 inches in size with a wingspan of 20-24 inches. These little birds of prey hold the title for being the smallest type of falcon found in North America.

Shape and color

Sharp-shinned Hawks have rounded wings with “fingers” at their wingtips, moderately long tails that appear notched in the middle, or square when folded.

These small hawks have brown streaking on the flanks and underside during juvenile stages, while they have blue-gray upperparts in adults, with light barring on the chest, and several stripes on the tail.

Photo showing key differences between Sharp-shinned Hawk (on the left) and American Kestrel (on the right), when viewed from below in flight

The American Kestrel’s distinguishing features include pointed wings and slender body. They have a rusty-red back and tail, as well as black spots under their wings.

Male American Kestrels can be recognized by their blue-gray wings, which are quite different from the female’s reddish coloration.

Behavioral differences between American Kestrels and Sharp-shinned Hawks

Hunting tactics

The differences in behavior between these two species become most apparent when comparing their hunting tactics.

Sharpies typically specialize in catching small songbirds by stealthily flying at low altitude through wooded landscapes to surprise their prey, and when they do, they accelerate with feverishly fast wing beats to chase their prey down with a quick sprint.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are more aggressive than American Kestrels and may even attack larger birds, such as doves, that are of equal size to the hawk itself. 

In contrast to this, American Kestrels prefer to hunt from elevated perches that overlook grasslands, meadows, and other open areas where they scan for small mammals, reptiles, or insects on the ground.

Another characteristic hunting technique of the American Kestrel involves hovering or “kiting” in mid-air, which it accomplishes by pointing its head into the wind, and then beating its wings just enough to remain motionless in the same spot.

When the kestrel spots a small animal on the ground below, it swoops down to capture it. 

Nesting behavior

While American Kestrels nest in cavities found at least 10-15 meters above ground on trees or buildings, Sharpies, similar to all other types of hawks, build a compact nest with twigs and small branches in dense groves of conifer trees at a height between 3-8 meters above the ground. 

Habitat preferences

The preferred habitat of Sharp-shinned Hawks is dense mixed or coniferous forests with regular clearings, as well as woodland edges that provide ample cover for these small hawks to sneak up on their prey. 

In addition to requiring woodland for hunting, they also need suitable evergreen trees in which to build their nest and protect their eggs and young during the breeding season. 

Outside of the breeding season, Sharpies are regular visitors in backyards and urban parks, where they find a large variety of songbirds to stalk.

In contrast to Sharp-shinned Hawks, the preferred habitat of American Kestrels is any kind of open space, including farmland, natural grassland, fallow landscapes, and desert edges.

These small falcons have also adapted well to urban life and often nest near suitable hunting habitats like parks with meadows, or along power lines.

Differences in activity over the day

A helpful tip to remember is that American Kestrels are often seen flying early in the day and late in the afternoon, while Sharp-shinned Hawks become more active around midday.

These temporal distinctions may not be the sole criteria for identification but can be helpful when making a quick judgment after catching a quick glimpse of one of these raptors.

Now let’s take closer look at each of these species:

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Scientific name: Accipiter striatus

Photo of Sharp-shinned Hawk

The Sharpie is the smallest accipiter species in North America, and is most commonly seen stalking song birds, making it a regular sight in backyards.

These hawks are recognizable by their small size, agility, and long tail with dark stripes. The striped tail is most obvious in juvenile birds, but is also present in adult birds.

They breed in coniferous and mixed forest across northern North America, and spend the winter in the southern United States and Central America.

American Kestrel

Scientific name: Falco sparverius

Photo of American Kestrel adult male

The American Kestrel is not only the smallest Falcon species found in North America, but also one of the most common raptors (although there has recently been an alarming decline in their numbers).

Male American Kestrels are very colorful, and sport rufous orange upperparts and and tail, as well as blue gray wings with dark pointed tips.

It also has a reddish orange cap on its crown, as well as a dark mustache and dark bar behind the eye. 

Female American Kestrels are more pale in their coloration, but also have rufous orange upperparts.

When foraging for food, it likes to hover over fields and meadows, or hunt from a perch such as a telephone pole or tree branch.

After it spots a rodent or other small animal, the American Kestrel dives down to grab it with its talons. 

The most commonly taken prey during the spring and summer months are insects and worms, while rodents and small birds predominate during the colder months. 

It likes to nest in abandoned Woodpecker holes, as well as crevices in buildings. It also accepts nesting boxes installed by humans. 

Final remarks

In conclusion, it’s important to recognize that accurately identifying birds of prey might not always be successful, particularly during long-distance sightings or difficult field conditions, such as bad light or shadows concealing distinguishing features of these birds.

This can make it challenging to compare similar species like the Sharp-shinned Hawk versus the American Kestrel.

However, with a little practice you’ll find that you can tell them apart more than 90% of the time without having to break a sweat, and this is good enough for most birders, while still enjoying the beauty of nature and broadening your ecological knowledge.

If you enjoyed this article, check out our guide to the types of hawks with white bellies.

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