Sneak Attack

The vultures were circling high in the air. House Sparrows hopped about on the grass and flew in and out of bushes. European Starlings flew overheard, singing their melodious trills.

Oh, by the way, this was all taking place in a parking lot.

Yes, you read that correctly. This was my recent walk through the parking lot next to my mom’s apartment. She lives in a busy section of a busy town that is always swarming with people. Yet, this parking lot is always filled with birds. Throughout the year we see House Finches, a variety of Sparrows, Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Kingbirds, Black and Turkey Vultures, European Starlings, American Robins, and many others. The lot is large, so it’s split into multiple parts. Between two sections there is a small stream and trees/bushes, so that must be part of the reason we see so many birds here.

It seemed like a pretty typical walk to the apartment. I was enjoying the sound of the Starlings and preoccupied thinking about the lovely weather.

That’s when the screaming started. It was to my left on the ground. I turned my head to see a flash of brown and flying feathers. The screech was piercing.

It was a Sharp-shinned Hawk! It attacked one of the Starlings. I have no clue where the hawk came from. The Starling somehow ended up escaping, and the Sharpie flew off in a frenzy. The struggle only last for a few seconds, but it almost seemed like time stopped for a moment. It was fascinating to experience this sneak attack so close

Adult Sharp-shinned Hawk with prey (Image by Bill Schiess, via

.A busy city parking lot is not where you would normal expect to see an Accipiter like the Sharp-shinned. Accipiters, sometimes referred to as “sparrowhawks”, live in deeply wooded habitats. The Accipiter family consists of 3 North American Hawks: Northern Goshawks, Cooper’s Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawks. “Sharpies” are the smallest of the 3 hawks.

Sharpies are about 11 inches in length. They are usually confused with the very similar Cooper’s Hawks, which is about 16 inches in length. Sharp-shinned hawks have long tails that act like a rudder as their glide through the woods in pursuit of prey. Their legs are also long and wings are short. Adults have blue-gray backs and red-orange bars on their breasts. Juveniles are mostly brown with white bellies. I believe the Sharpie I witnessed was a juvenile.

Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk (Image by Kevin Cole via wikipedia)

Sharp-shinned Hawks are very agile, and adapted for navigating through trees and dense thickets. They can also be found at bird feeders. They aren’t there to eat the seed however: they are there to eat the birds. A majority of the Sharpie’s diet are songbirds. Any small bird between the size of a hummingbird to a ruffed grouse can be potential prey. Males (who are the smaller of the sexes) tend to capture smaller birds such as sparrows. Females (the larger sex) tend to catch large prey such as Flickers. Feeders are the perfect place to scope out a meal for a Sharpie. They will usually take their catch to a perch to pluck out the feathers.

The last thing I expected to see that day in the parking lot was a Sharpie. I’m guessing while passing by he spotted all the songbird activity that day, so he thought he could catch a quick snack. It was a really amazing moment to experience.


Author: BirdNation

I am an avid birder, teacher, and nature lover. I primarily go birding in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but love to travel. I am currently a biology student with interests in conservation biology, ornithology, and environmental sciences. My dream is to go birding in all 50 states.

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