7 sparrowhawk facts you need to know

Discover 7 fascinating facts about sparrowhawks, one of our most spectacular predators and a regular in back gardens across the country.

Male sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) perched sitting on a plucking post with prey. © DJEPhotography/Getty
1

Are sparrowhawks getting more common?

While the sparrowhawk is now one of the most widespread birds of prey in Britain, until a few decades ago it was more or less extinct in many eastern counties. This was partly due to persecution, but also due to pesticide use in agriculture. As well as killing individuals, the accumulation of harmful compounds thinned their eggs, which increased breakages during incubation. This led to a population decline.

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Male sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) in flight
Male sparrowhawk in flight. © Mike Lane/Getty
2

Do sparrowhawks kill too many small birds?

Since bouncing back, sparrowhawks have spread into many suburban parks and gardens. Due to their efficiency at catching small birds, they have come into conflict with some garden birdwatchers, and have been blamed for the widespread decline of many songbirds.

It’s true that the recovery of the sparrowhawk population from the past impact of organochlorine pesticides coincides with a marked decline in some songbird populations. However, detailed studies, such as at Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire, have not found a causal link – for example, breeding tit populations in the woods were not conspicuously higher in years when sparrowhawks were absent.

Female sparrowhawk on the ground with prey hidden by the grass and a small feather on its beak
Female sparrowhawk plucking a small bird she’s caught. © Piotr Krzeslak/Getty

Though one study estimated that the species took 18–27 per cent of young blue tits fledged from a nestbox population, even this level of predation was not enough to depress breeding densities in future years.

It is worth noting that most songbirds are predators too, and we don’t get quite so worked up about a blue tit killing a caterpillar or a song thrush eating a snail.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) with prey
Male sparrow hawk with prey. © Jrleyland/Getty
3

Where do sparrowhawks nest?

Sparrowhawks prefer to nest in dense woodland and breed between May and July. Until the chicks are old enough to be left alone, the male sparrowhawk does all the hunting, feeding both the young and the female. Then both parents hunt for the juveniles, and they continue to do so up to a month after the young sparrowhawks have left the nest.

Eurasian sparrowhawk female feeding her chicks at the nest
Female sparrowhawk feeding her chicks at the nest. © Tony Allen/Getty
4

How do sparrowhawks hunt?

Sparrowhawks rely on the element of surprise and as such will often follow a regular route to get close to potential prey, which in gardens means using the cover of a hedge or shed. By moving feeding stations around your garden and keeping them close to cover, you can reduce the chance of a sparrowhawk attack.

If you’ve got a particularly popular garden feeding station, you might receive a visit from a hunting sparrowhawk a few times per day. Even if you don’t see the sparrowhawk, you might hear the frantic alarm calls from all the small birds in the garden.

Eurasian sparrowhawk with pigeon prey on the ground in the city.
Sparrowhawks can kill prey as large as pigeons, and they’re well adapted to city life. © Kieran Ball/EyeEm/Getty
5

Are some sparrowhawks bigger than others?

Female sparrowhawks are about twice the weight of males, one of the largest differences between sexes in any bird of prey. While this enables her to carry extra body reserves needed for reproduction, and to go for several days without a meal, it does mean she is a less agile hunter than the male.

Female sparrowhawks are therefore more likely to take larger prey like pigeons, while male sparrowhawks will typically hunt small songbirds like tits, finches and sparrows.

Eurasian sparrowhawk in flight with blue skies in the background
Sparrowhawk in flight. © Denja1/Getty
6

What colour eyes do sparrowhawks have?

The colour of a sparrowhawk’s eye depends on its age and gender. Typically younger birds have greenish-yellow eyes which become brighter yellow within the first couple of years of their life. In some older sparrowhawks, the eye colour can become orange or, occasionally, red.

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Close up portrait of a female Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) showing its orange eye and sharp beak
An older female sparrowhawk with a yellow-orange eye. © MriyaWildlife/Getty
7

How do you identify a sparrowhawk?

Sparrowhawks are small, broad-winged raptors with long tails and long, thin yellow legs. Adult males have slate-grey upperparts and fine rufous barring underneath. Females have brownish-grey upperparts and less rufous barring than the male. They have a more prominent white line above the eye.

Juvenile Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)
Juvenile sparrowhawks are closer in appearance to females than adult males. © Gary Chalker/Getty

Love sparrowhawks? What about their bigger, bulkier and rarer cousin, the goshawk?

7 goshawk facts you need to know

Photo © Alan Tunnicliffe/Getty

Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) protecting its pheasant prey

The sparrowhawk was the August 2015 BTO garden bird of the month.

The British Trust of Ornithology (BTO) works in partnership with over 40,000 volunteer birdwatchers to chart the fortunes of UK birds.

Among the surveys that we coordinate is our popular Garden BirdWatch, the largest year-round survey of garden birds in the world.

Each month we highlight a bird for you to look out for in your garden.

For more information about Garden BirdWatch or to speak to the Garden Ecology Team please email gbw@bto.org

 

Read previous BTO Garden Bird of the Month blogs.