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Sharp-shinned Hawk Vs American Kestrel: Unmistakable Differences (2024)

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sharp shinned hawk vs american kestrelWhen comparing the sharp-shinned hawk vs. American kestrel, you’ll find distinct physical differences.

The sharp-shinned hawk has a stockier body, shorter tail, and thicker bill.

The kestrel boasts a slender frame, longer tail, and curved beak.

Plumage also differs.

The kestrel sports rusty-brown upperparts and blue-gray wings.

The sharp-shinned hawk has blue-gray upperparts with orange-brown breast bars.

Although their wingspans are similar, their wing shapes and flight behaviors contrast sharply.

To truly grasp the nuances that set these raptors apart, an in-depth exploration is warranted.

Key Takeaways

  • The sharp-shinned hawk has a stockier body, shorter tail, and thicker bill, while the American kestrel has a slender frame, longer tail, and curved beak.
  • The sharp-shinned hawk has blue-gray upperparts with orange-brown breast bars, while the kestrel sports rusty-brown upperparts and blue-gray wings.
  • The sharp-shinned hawk relies on speed and agility to chase prey in dense forests and woodlands, while the American kestrel hovers and dives to capture insects, small mammals, and birds in open habitats.
  • The sharp-shinned hawk prefers dense forests and wooded areas for breeding and nesting, while the American kestrel thrives in open habitats like fields, deserts, and grasslands, often nesting in cavities or nest boxes.

Physical Differences

Physical Differences
When distinguishing these two hawks, you’ll notice striking physical differences.

The sharp-shinned hawk has a smaller head relative to its stocky body. The American kestrel‘s head appears proportional.

The kestrel’s tail is notably longer, aiding in its agile maneuvers. In contrast, the sharp-shinned boasts a shorter tail.

Examine their bills – the kestrel’s is slender and curved, perfect for plucking insects. The sharp-shinned’s is thicker, suited for tearing prey.

The kestrel’s legs are a vibrant yellow-orange. The sharp-shinned’s legs are a muted yellow.

Observe their preening behavior; the kestrel habitually bobs its head and tail.

These subtle distinctions reveal the unique adaptations of each raptor.

Plumage Patterns

Plumage Patterns
The American kestrel’s plumage is striking, with the male’s rusty-brown back contrasting against blue-gray wings and a patterned head, while the female sports rufous brown upperparts and pale underparts. In contrast, the sharp-shinned hawk displays more subdued coloration, with blue-gray upperparts and orange-brown bars on the breast and belly, lacking the kestrel’s distinctive head markings.

American Kestrel Markings

You’ll instantly recognize the male American kestrel’s rusty back and slate-blue wings with striking black facial markings. Females sport warm rufous tones with black barring. These unique birds of prey favor open habitats, nesting in tree cavities or nest boxes – the perfect vantage point for their hover-hunting prowess against insect and small mammal prey.

Sharp-shinned Hawk Markings

In contrast, you’ll identify sharp-shinned hawks by their blue-gray upperparts and orange-brown breast bars. Their tails are square-notched, unlike the kestrel’s rusty color. As aggressive raptors hunting in dense forests, sharp-shinneds showcase banded tails and rounded wings suited for quick, weaving pursuits through the trees—markings distinctly different from open-country kestrels.

Size Comparison

Size Comparison
You’ll immediately notice the size difference between these two raptors.

The sharp-shinned hawk is a stocky, well-built bird, noticeably larger than the petite American kestrel.

Take a closer look and you’ll see the hawk’s small head appears disproportionately tiny compared to its body, while the kestrel’s head is more proportional.

Tail length is another giveaway – the kestrel sports a distinctively long, rusty tail compared to the hawk’s shorter one.

Wingspan, too, helps distinguish them – the sharp-shinned stretches around 20-26 inches while kestrels measure 20-24 inches.

Coloration varies between males and females in both species but overall, the kestrel appears warmer, more rufous compared to the hawk’s cooler gray tones.

Size matters when identifying these beauties in flight!

Wing Shape

Wing Shape
One key difference between the sharp-shinned hawk and American kestrel lies in their wing shapes.

The sharp-shinned hawk sports rounded wings, perfect for agility as it darts through dense foliage chasing prey.

In contrast, you’ll notice the kestrel’s wings are more pointed – streamlined for hovering and efficient flight.

Compare the wingspans too: the sharp-shin typically has a 20-26 inch wingspan, while kestrels are a tad smaller at 20-24 inches.

Look closely at the wing color and patterns as well.

Kestrels flaunt those distinct slate-blue wings with black slashes, setting them apart from the more uniform blue-gray upperparts of sharp-shins.

These subtle wing variations reveal clues about each raptor’s unique hunting prowess.

Flight Behavior

Flight Behavior
You’ll immediately notice the distinct hunting styles of these two raptors.

The American kestrel hovers in place, wings beating rapidly, before plunging down to snatch prey from the ground or vegetation.

The sharp-shinned hawk relies on speed and agility, flapping rapidly while weaving through branches to ambush smaller birds in thick cover.

Their flight behaviors perfectly complement their differing prey preferences and environments.

Hunting Techniques

You’ll see stark contrasts in their hunting techniques. Sharp-shinned hawks are pursuit predators:

  • Rely on speed and agility to chase prey
  • Hunt in dense forests and woodlands
  • Take larger prey like songbirds and rodents

American kestrels employ a sit-and-wait strategy:

  • Perch and scan for insects, small mammals
  • Dive or hover to capture prey
  • Prefer open habitats like fields and grasslands

Their diets, territories, and nesting habits also differ, reflecting their diverse prey and habitat preferences.

Hovering Vs. Gliding

You’ll instantly recognize the size differences as the sharp-shinned hawk glides effortlessly, its wings curved for agility, while the smaller American kestrel hovers mid-air, wings beating rapidly like a hummingbird. This bird of prey relies on that hovering ability to spot prey below before stooping for the kill, unlike its gliding, ambush-hunting cousin.


You can distinguish the sharp-shinned hawk and American kestrel by their distinct vocalizations. Listen for these key differences:

  1. Call pitch: Kestrels have loud, high-pitched klee-klee calls, while sharp-shinned hawks emit higher keek notes.
  2. Call repetition: Kestrels repeat their calls in a series, whereas sharp-shins call intermittently.
  3. Call purpose: Kestrels vocalize to defend territories and attract mates, while sharp-shins call primarily during breeding.

Like other raptors – eagles, falcons, owls – vocalizations serve important purposes for these birds of prey. Pay attention to the frequency, duration, and patterns of their calls to identify which species you’re observing. The sharp-shinned hawk’s higher-pitched, sporadic calls contrast with the American kestrel’s repetitive, whining cries.

Habitat Preferences

You’ll find the American kestrel thriving in open habitats like fields, deserts, and grasslands.

While the sharp-shinned hawk prefers dense forests and wooded areas.

Kestrels nest in cavities, often reusing woodpecker holes or nest boxes.

Sharp-shins build stick nests in dense tree canopies.

Prey selection differs too – kestrels hunt insects, small mammals, and birds.

While sharp-shins specialize in pursuing smaller songbirds.

With populations declining due to habitat loss and pesticide use, conservation efforts like protecting nesting areas and promoting captive breeding programs are critical for these remarkable raptors’ survival.

Range and Migration

Range and Migration
The American kestrel’s breeding range spans across much of North America.

While the sharp-shinned hawk tends to breed farther north in the continent’s boreal forest regions.

As it pertains to migration, kestrels generally remain in their breeding grounds year-round or make relatively short movements.

Whereas many sharp-shinned hawks undertake longer migratory journeys between their northern breeding areas and wintering grounds to the south.

American Kestrel Range

The American kestrel’s range spans across:

  1. North America
  2. Central America
  3. The Caribbean islands
  4. Parts of South America

Its nesting habits are diverse, from woodpecker holes to nest boxes. These resourceful falcons adapt to changing habitats, though populations face threats from pesticides and habitat loss. Their diet of insects and small mammals reflects their historical role as nature’s pest control.

Sharp-shinned Hawk Range

You’ll spot sharp-shinned hawks across much of North America, breeding in coniferous or mixed forests from Alaska to Newfoundland. While their population has rebounded from past declines, they face threats like habitat loss and pesticide use. Consider supporting raptor conservation efforts or installing nest boxes to aid these agile, feisty hunters.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do their hunting strategies differ?

With a 20% higher hunting success rate, you’ll witness the kestrel hover and dive for insects and rodents, while the sharpie ambushes birds with deadly speed through dense foliage.

Are they known to nest near each other?

You’ll rarely find American kestrels and sharp-shinned hawks nesting near each other. Kestrels prefer open areas, while sharp-shins thrive in dense forests. Their nesting habitats and preferences are markedly different.

What are their typical prey items?

While a staggering 85% of kestrel prey consists of insects and other invertebrates, sharp-shinned hawks target small birds almost exclusively. You’ll enjoy witnessing nature’s diversity firsthand by observing their unique hunting styles.

How does weather impact their behavior?

Rain and fog impact hunting by reducing visibility, so you’ll see fewer raptors during inclement weather. High winds make hover-hunting difficult for kestrels, while sharpies prefer calm conditions for ambush attacks from cover.

Do their populations face any threats?

Yes, their populations face threats from habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change. You should support conservation efforts to protect these amazing raptors for future generations.


Distinguishing the sharp-shinned hawk from the American kestrel is like spotting a tiger among house cats. Their stark contrasts in appearance, flight patterns, and habitats are unmistakable. By understanding the sharp-shinned hawk vs. American kestrel differences, you’ll gain a profound appreciation for nature’s remarkable diversity within the raptor family, sharpening your skills as an avid birdwatcher.

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Mutasim Sweileh

Mutasim Sweileh is a passionate bird enthusiast and author with a deep love for avian creatures. With years of experience studying and observing birds in their natural habitats, Mutasim has developed a profound understanding of their behavior, habitats, and conservation. Through his writings, Mutasim aims to inspire others to appreciate and protect the beautiful world of birds.