Adults have a dark gray to black crown; black back and wings; dark and light banding on the tail; thin white band at the tip of the tail; reddish barring on the white chest and belly; and white undertail coverts. Immatures have variable brown streaking throughout the body, with dark and light banding on the tail. 25-36 cm (10-14 in) in length; 51-71 cm (20-28 in) wingspan. Head small relative to the rest of the body; tail short and squared at the end. As is common in many raptors, the females of this species are larger than the males.
The breeding season begins in early May, peaks later that month, and extends until late July. Breeding habitat is usually deciduous or evergreen woodlands, commonly in mountainous areas. The nest is usually in a conifer or deciduous tree about 10-60 feet above the ground. The platform-style nest is built near the trunk of the tree out of sticks and twigs. It is lined with small sticks, bark strips, and conifer needles. The female lays 3-8 (usually 4-5) eggs that the adults incubate for 32-35 days. The young are semialtricial and fledge 24-27 days after hatching. The female provides most of the care for the young at the nest. The young become independent of the adults 21-28 days after they fledge.
Non-breeding habitat is similar to the breeding habitat. The diet of the Sharp-shinned Hawk consists of birds, small mammals, and other small vertebrates. This species hunts its prey on the wing or from a perch in the forest. The Sharp-shinned Hawk is very agile and is able to chase its avian prey through the forest. Some Sharp-shinned Hawks are migratory.
During the breeding season, the Sharp-shinned Hawk is found in the extreme northern areas of the United States, most of Canada, and mountainous portions of the United States. Wintering birds can be found throughout most of the United States, and some birds winter as far south as Central America. In Georgia, Sharp-shinned Hawks are rare and can occur in the northern and western fourth of the state. During the non-breeding season, they are still uncommon to fairly common, but can be seen in any part of the state.
he Sharp-shinned Hawk is listed as Threatened in Tennessee and Of Special Concern in Kentucky. This species was previously in a rapid decline because of reproductive failures caused by DDT and other pesticides. As the levels of these pesticides increased in the birds, they caused eggshell thinning. The weight of the incubating adult birds can break a thinned eggshell.
The most similar species is the Cooper's Hawk. The Cooper's Hawk has a longer tail which is more rounded at the end. Its head is also larger relative to the rest of its body.