Sparrowhawk

Mistle thrush sat on post.
Mistle thrush
May 15, 2020
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Sparrowhawk

Female sparrow hawk with prey at her feet.

Female sparrow hawk with prey at her feet.

Pictures by Mark Fisher

The sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisis) belongs to the family 'Falconidae' which includes Harriers, Eagles, Buzzards, Kites, Hawks and Falcons. Sparrowhawks are resident in the UK. They feed mainly on small birds like finches, sparrows (as their name suggests), and songbirds and also mice, voles, frogs and insects, but females being larger than males will also take bigger birds like doves and pigeons if the opportunity arises. They catch birds by stealth and surprise, swooping low and fast over hedgerows. You may only catch a glimpse of one as it passes through your garden looking for prey.

Occasionally you may see one sitting on your garden fence or in a tree surveying the territory and if you get a good look you will see what magnificent plumage they have. The female when fully grown will be about three inches (75mm) longer and nearly twice the weight of a male and has a brown back and white underside with brown horizontal baring, the smaller male has a dark slate gray back with orange barring on the underside (see pictures).

Their natural haunt is woodland and open countryside but with thousands of miles of hedgerows being removed over the past forty years to accommodate modern farming practice they have been driven into more populated areas where they take advantage of people having bird feeders which can supply them with a ready source of food. It’s wonderful to see the occasional sparrowhawk in your garden, but it isn’t a visitor bird lovers want to visit too often.

Between May and July the birds will build a nest of sticks in a tree in woodland or sometimes on a cliff ledge. They usually lay five white eggs which are blotched with red-brown more heavily at the large end. Until the chicks are old enough to be left alone the female will brood the eggs leaving the lighter more agile male to hunt for the food. The adults will continue to feed the chicks for up to a month after leaving the nest.

Sparrowhawks learn where bird feeding tables are and if you have a busy one it may be visited every day by one. It’s a good idea to place the feeding table near a bush so the small birds can escape into cover without having to fly and distance to reach shelter as this gives the sparrowhawk a great advantage.

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